There is much talk about lifelong learning, but how do we make learning really lifelong – even for older people in the fourth age, who are in need of care and assistance? Older adults today in the third and fourth age are actively seeking learning opportunities and while fewer offers are available within the formal learning system for this group, there are plenty of things to choose from within non-formal or informal learning. In the Northern part of Europe there are several open air museums working very actively with older adults as one important target group. Museums have always been organisations working with learning in different forms, but also places for tourists, for a fun day out with your family or for researchers. In the project Active ageing and Heritage in Adult learning, funded by Erasmus+, five open air museums in Europe work together with three Universities in order to evaluate and research the learning impact of the reminiscence activities these museums work with aimed at people with dementia.
All the museums have activities for people with dementia, which takes place in special buildings set in the 1940s, or 1950s. By working with an environment familiar to most of the participants as well as with objects, smells, taste, music, photos and clothes, the participants’ memories are evoked. They often start sharing their own stories and experiences. Abilities, skills and knowledge no one knew they had become apparent. The staff at the museums learn a lot from their stories about their lives in the 1940s and 50s, the carers accompanying the participants learn that they are real people with a past professional life, skills, feelings and thoughts. They start seeing them as individuals rather than one in a crowd of patients. The participants themselves re-discover what they are capable of, increase their self-esteem by being able to contribute their knowledge, skills or opinions. They also learn from each other’s stories.
So a simple session of coming to the open air museums, being greeted by staff in old fashioned clothes, helping to lay the table, grind the coffee, make the coffee on the iron stove, maybe bake biscuits, look at some photos and object, sing a song and chat can make a huge difference to someone’s life. At least that is what the museum staff think. The Active ageing and Heritage in Adult learning project is now working on evaluating this in order to be able to verify or falsify that the participants have a learning experience that is enormously beneficial to them. The museums together with the universities have constructed a method for researching and evaluating the impact and effects of the programmes. It is not easy to create qualitative learning opportunities for people with dementia and asking them about their experience afterwards is of course also difficult when they have troubles with the memory. The data will be collected during 2015-2016 and the final report available in 2017, so then we will know if drinking coffee can be a learning experience for people with dementia.