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Adapting Arts Engagement: What We Learned From Isolation

Guest Contributor: Abby Pendlebury

As we ease out of lockdown, programs catering to carers and communities of people living with dementia are trying to learn about the most engaging opportunities to reconnect with the community and bring a breath of fresh air to those who have been most confined.

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In my experience, the best activities, and moments I have shared with this community have all related around the arts. As a musician, I tried to create an event that surrounded art and sound. I showed stills from Disney’s Fantasia 2000 and 2001. I had participants tell me which colors stuck out, which emotions these colors evoked, and then I had them guess the type of music associated with the images.

This was such a fun and one of the most engaging events I hosted. While this was a lighthearted event, it was clear that some individuals were less comfortable speaking in front of the group. These activities were meant to be fun and not a challenge or stress inducer. Towards the end of the event, I chose to bring in some instruments rented by a university orchestra, including my very own French Horn. 

Included in the instruments was a vintage trumpet. We were about to lead the group out to their van when one woman who had been silent during the activity, walked around the table to the trumpet case. Most of the group had already exited the room when the activity coordinator and I stood back and watched. In her time, the participant opened the case, took the mouthpiece out of its holster, and lifted it to her mouth.

She began to play taps.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, taps is a bugle call and song played during funerals and flag ceremonies for the United States Armed Forces. She played this tune roughly three times before her carer placed a hand on her shoulder. When an emotional connection is made between a participant and an object memory, it is an amazing but cautious moment.

The goal is to always evoke a warm, kind memory. The participant smiled, set the trumpet down and rejoined her group. The following month I heard from the activities coordinator who told me that she was less responsive, but she had asked her daughter the significance. This participant and her husband had both been in the US Armed Forces Band. It was one of the happiest times of her life performing with her husband. 

Group activities still harness the power to evoke individual moments. The goal is to have these moments and share them with a group.

Emotions and memories are complex, and for those of us who try to facilitate these connections it is a breakthrough moment when we see someone expressing themselves in a new or forgotten medium.

Museum of Brands 1 Memory Cafe Directory
Courtesy Museum of Brands

This is an early memory from my beginnings working with this community. I have since learned the importance of tactile, sensory activities in starting a dialogue and getting groups of people living with dementia to interact with one another. Isolation has been a challenge for so many during COVID.

Due to the pandemic, many businesses, museums, and arts related institutions had to close their doors and people were challenged to update how we think about interaction and engagement. Activity packs with arts activities including making paper dolls, painting, drawing, and jewelry making, some of the most accessible activities, were not available due to the risk of transmitting the virus on objects. The opportunity to have group activities was also limited or halted.

Museum of Brands Memory Cafe Directory
Courtesy Museum of Brands

What Did We Learn?

So, the question here is what did we learn? Which sensory activities are the most successful during times of forced isolation? Technology has made new avenues available. While this medium is not as successful in engaging tactile events, it can be used to start the conversation again, to ease into a sense of normalcy and community.

Online memory sessions via Zoom and access to downloadable dementia activity packages have been used by organizations like the Museum of Brands to open the door for continued engagement. What we found is that people were very interested in take-home activities and online trivia games. 

Moving Forward: Access, Engagement, and Reminiscing

This is no easy task, but more and more resources are springing out of this lockdown. Arts institutions recognize the need for resources and events aimed at a population including a broad audience of carers, persons living with dementia, families, and friends.

Museum of Brands Memory Cafe Directory
Courtesy Museum of Brands

Some activity ideas include visiting a local garden, decorating a flowerpot, group trivia, music, presentations, and candle making or potpourri making based on favorite scents.

There are many sensory activities available, but I, like of many of you, recognize that these are financially unstable times.

Some groups may not have the resources to visit local arts museums or have sessions in person due to problems with transport and financial constraints. This author believes that the wellbeing of these communities that largely benefits from structured activities, should not be obstructed due to inaccessibility.

Online, downloadable, printable activity packs are being created as part of wellbeing programs at London museums. The Museum of Brands and the Museum of London are committed to catering for broad communities with a focus on dementia friendly presentations, events, and activities. 

There are free activity packages available now under wellbeing at the For anyone without access to computers, we are piloting a program to mail activity packs to those without access to printers. Furthermore, replica Memory Boxes with several replica branded objects from the 19th century can be rented out to a care home or individual for a small fee. 

As an individual who works with this ever-growing community, I am looking for ways to make arts related resources available and widespread. If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about dementia resources and free activity packs, I will be happy to assist. We are all a community, and it is more important now that we reconnect, reunite, and re-engage with those who have been the most isolated during this very difficult year. 

We are excited to announce that museums and arts programs are reopening their doors, accepting autumn bookings, and we are looking for feedback from you to ensure we are growing our programs in accordance with the needs of our community. While I live and work for Greater London, I have experience working in the United States with Alzheimer’s organizations.

Reach out to your community workers, your arts organizations, and let people working for you know how we can combat isolation and get back to supporting this community. 

Museum of Brands Memory Cafe Directory
Courtesy Museum of Brands

Abby Pendlebury

Abby Pendlebury

Abby Pendlebury works as the Community Development Project Manager for the Brand Memories Programme at the Museum of Brands. After graduating from Oxford and UCL with two master’s degrees in archaeology and heritage management, she moved into the charity sector focusing on accessibility and outreach.

Her current role focuses on providing resources and events for all peoples affected by dementia and its many forms. The programme is back up and running after COVID, and Abby looks forward to planning future reminiscing events, volunteer training sessions, and creating new activity packages and events.

For information about the program contact Abby at or visit us online at

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