We are AMuSED: creating a toolkit for multisensory reminiscence

Written by Phillippa Heath, The MERL’s Learning and Engagement Manager.

Over the last year and a half, The MERL has been working with University of Reading colleagues in the Biomedical Engineering department on a new multisensory intervention for people living with dementia.

The AMuSED toolkit (or, the Active MUlti-Sensory Environment for people living with Dementia) is in the form of a collapsible box which combines multisensory experiences, in a form which is portable, affordable, and gives opportunities for personalised approaches.

Phillippa Heath with the AMuSED Box.
Phillippa and the AMuSED Box in a pop-up session at Reading’s Broad Street Mall.

How the idea began

The AMuSED toolkit is the culmination of the research of biomedical engineers Professor Rachel McCrindle PhD student Esther Olorunda. In their work, Rachel and Esther explore the role that technology can have in improving the quality of life of people living with dementia.

Esther and Rachel reviewed existing interventions, which range from sensory rooms with bubble tubes, projectors and aroma therapy, to the Tovertafel (‘the Magic Table’ in Dutch) designed particularly for people living with moderate to severe dementia, which comprises a projector projecting light and games on a table.

The final toolkit that Esther and Rachel produced addressed some of the deficiencies of these existing offers. Most notably, this was the high cost per unit and the inflexibility to cater for individuals as dementia progresses. The newly created toolkit combines multisensory opportunities, in a box form which can be used in any location, is affordable, and can be personalised depending on individual preferences.

Our involvement

As part of our membership of the Dementia Friendly Reading working group, The MERL had the opportunity to co-design a MERL AMuSED box that drew on and was inspired by our collections. The overarching theme of the box that we produced was ‘A Day out in the Country’.

The AMuSED Box.
Our very own version of an AMuSED Box! This special countryside edition is filled with photographs, materials, sounds, and sensory experiences all related to the history of the countryside and our collections.

Our box combines a range of multisensory experiences to help bring the countryside to life, such as smells, a photograph album with audio descriptions, textures, games, resources for crafts, and even tweeting birds. Alongside these elements we have also included facsimile photographs and postcards from the Museum collections.

One addition which has been received particularly positively has been the ‘What’s in the Box?’ activities. These boxes include a tactile element, a collection image, and sound which plays automatically when the box is opened. In our MERL box, we have one which contains sheep’s fleece with an audio extract from an oral history interview with Amanda Owen, known more commonly as the the Yorkshire Shepherdess.

Wool in the AMuSED Box.

In another, we have Morris bells accompanied by, of course, the sound of Morris dancing!

What impact has AMuSED had?

The AMuSED Toolkit encompasses many of the elements of reminiscence therapy that have been practiced in museums over a number of years, but brings them together in one incredibly useful resource.

At the heart of reminiscence in museums has been an understanding that collections can inspire a connection or provoke a memory or story, and these uses have shown to be particularly beneficial for those living with dementia.

Depending on the nature of collections, we typically use objects, films, music, and archives as these prompts, but we also also frequently supplement this experience with sensory activity as part of structured sessions. The toolkit has greatly enhanced this work by offering something which brings multisensory elements in one place, allows for a tailored, personalised approach, and includes affordable digital elements.

Members of the public opening a compartment of an AMuSED Box.

At The MERL we have been using the AMuSED toolkit as part of our new Chatty Café initiative, an informal drop-in opportunity taking place on the third Tuesday of each month, as well as part of more structured memory sharing reminiscence sessions with partners such as Alzheimer’s Dementia Support.

How has working with The MERL collections benefitted the AMuSED research?

Discussing the collaboration with The MERL, Esther says:

‘The AMuSED Countryside edition co-designed with The MERL has created an avenue for people to experience the countryside through a multisensory tabletop box. The toolkit combines both digital and traditional elements to provide stimulation to the different senses such as sight, sound, touch and smell in order to create an immersive, engaging and interactive reminiscence experience.

Working with The MERL’s collections helped us understand more about rural life and the countryside than we initially thought possible. It provided us with access to the Museum’s resources such as photos from the archives, information about the appropriate elements for the theme and the question prompts used in the activity sessions. This collaboration also provided access to the amazing staff and volunteers that helped to organise and run the activity sessions.

The most amazing part of the collaboration with The MERL outside of the amazing cakes at the chatty cafés was the opportunity to observe the AMuSED toolkit being used in real time! This has helped to identify the benefits of the toolkit especially to people living with dementia, as well as ways in which it can be improved to better suit their needs’.

Professor McCrindle adds:

‘Working with Phillippa and the wider MERL team to co-design the Countryside Edition of the AMuSED boxes has been a fantastic and fascinating experience, showing how valuable, informative, and fun multi-disciplinary working can be. By working with The MERL, we were able to take advantage of The MERL’s expertise of providing engaging and stimulating reminiscence sessions for people living with dementia as well as their knowledge of ‘all things countryside’. The result of this collaboration has been the creation of a special countryside-themed AMuSED box that draws upon objects from The MERL’s archives as well as their understanding of peoples’ lived experiences’.

‘We also used the expertise of the University’s Creative and Print Services to ensure that the AMuSED boxes were printed and produced to the highest quality and able to withstand repeated handling and cleaning. One highlight of this collaborative experience has been the successful translation of our research ideas into something that is already benefitting people with dementia and their family members through The MERL’s community programmes’.

If you require any more information about the AMuSED box, The MERL Chatty Café, or using the AMuSED box as part of a memory sharing session, please contact The MERL’s Learning and Engagement Manager, Phillippa, at merlevents@reading.ac.uk.

The next Chatty Café takes place on the afternoon of Tuesday 19th April. Everyone is welcome and we’d love to see you there!

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