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Observations from object handling

Prof Paul Camic shares some experiences that have come about as a result of people living with dementia participating in object handling sessions.
We’ve worked with many people in museum object handling and they’ve had a range of experiences, and some of those I’d like to share. One of the areas we’ve been interested in is subjective well-being and how we can understand subjective well-being in any in-the-moment experience. And although we’ve been able to show statistically significant results after object handling sessions that well-being has increased, what’s really been more important to us actually and more interesting is the responses we’ve had from participants in these activities. And I’m recalling one man who told me that he can’t remember– he said he couldn’t remember the objects that he handled. And he felt badly about that.
But he said, what I can remember is the experience that I had, and for me these experiences make me feel more alive again, make me feel more connected to the people around me, and make me realise that I can still have, what he described as, normal, everyday, and ordinary experiences that are enjoyable. And that was really quite a defining experience for us as researchers to hear that. Some of the things that surprised us about our work with museum object handling was the emotional impact of handling an object had on those people with dementia and also with caregivers when they were involved in some of those activities. And for example, one woman was handling a skull.
In fact, she didn’t want to handle it initially because she thought it was a very sort of disgusting object, which generated a lot of laughter around the room, particularly from the chaps. And as that object went around the room and people were describing it and handling it and seeming to enjoy it, she asked for it back. And so she started describing an experience she had as a child in horseback riding and said that she knows this isn’t a horse, but it reminded her of a horse. So it’s kind of one of those experiences that we had as researchers where we didn’t know where the object handling discussion would go.
Some of it stayed directly on the object and focused on the object’s sensory experiences when touching it, or perhaps when smelling it, and others triggered other experiences the persons had in their life. So it wasn’t focusing on reminiscence, but it triggered some reminiscence, which was then shared by someone else who may have recounted another story in their life. Another benefit of object handling is that all the work that we do has been done in groups, small groups of between four and 12 people.
And this allows people to not only examine different objects that they haven’t encountered before in their lives, but also to have a social experience that is based around learning something new, interacting positively, and really having a good time. And having a good time or enjoying yourself I think is really underrated, particularly with people with dementia, that if you have an enjoyable experience, it’s much more likely to trigger involvement and engagement and curiosity rather than an experience that might be boring or dull. And that’s one of the things that object handling does. It allows people to have fun and also to be quite serious about the different objects that they experience over a session.

Prof Paul Camic shares some of the experiences that have come about as a result of people living with dementia participating in object handling sessions.

This includes:

  • A sense of curiosity, involvement and engagement
  • Feelings of wellbeing and pleasure
  • Stimulation of memories
  • A sense of connectedness brought about by the social experience

At the end of this week you will find a list of questions that you can use to try handling objects by yourself. When trying this exercise, either by yourself, with a partner, or in a group, notice whether it triggers any of the experiences outlined in this video.

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Dementia and the Arts: Sharing Practice, Developing Understanding and Enhancing Lives

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