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Bringing Dementia and Heritage Together

The National Trust’s East Riddlesden Hall in West Yorkshire plans to open a new dementia-friendly wellbeing garden next year ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler
Tiger de Souza, the National Trust’s Volunteering and Inclusion Director

Bringing dementia and heritage together is a perfect partnership and we are excited to join forces with Alzheimer’s Society to make all of our 500 places across England, Wales and Northern Ireland dementia-friendly over the next three years.

This is the largest project of its kind for the Trust, and while we already have lots of great work going on right now to support those affected by dementia, we know we have a long way to go. When it comes to fully understanding the challenges facing those with dementia, we admit that we are not the experts.

What we do know is that there are huge benefits that our historic spaces and collections can bring to people living with dementia and their carers. In fact, research has shown that the stories and memories our places can rekindle is why so many of those with the disease choose day trips to National Trust properties to help them live normal, fulfilled lives.

Young volunteers prepare one of the houses at the National Trust’s Back to Backs in Birmingham which offer monthly tours of the historic houses to recreate what life was like for families in gone-by years. ©National Trust Images/John Millar

For instance, at our Birmingham Back to Backs – an atmospheric courtyard of 19th century working people’s houses – we have created reminiscence sessions where we offer special monthly tours of the historic houses to recreate what life was like for families in gone-by years. And at Wimpole in Cambridge, we host our Farming Memories group, which encourages former farmers and agricultural workers with dementia to meet up and take part in farming activities.

However, we know we can do more to make our places more accessible and improve the support on offer. This is why this partnership is so important to us. Working with Alzheimer’s Society, we will ensure our 9,000 staff and 63,500 volunteers have a greater awareness of the changes we can make to our places to make them more welcoming to people living with dementia. Our people will also be able to join the three million existing Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Friends across the UK, in the biggest roll-out of the scheme in the heritage sector.

Alongside vital training, we are also looking at how we can make changes at some of our places, from improving signage and facilities, and modifying materials we use on our paths and car parks to developing dementia services (such as cafes, tours and social events), taking heritage to local care homes, hospitals, day centres and community groups, and leading the way for more dementia-friendly communities by hosting awareness raising activities and making improvements for those living with the disease.

With figures showing that someone develops dementia every three minutes, and with Alzheimer’s Society predicting the number of people with dementia will hit one million by 2021, it’s no surprise to hear that dementia is the greatest health concern of our time.

And it’s a disease very close to the Trust’s heart. We predict that about 150,000 Trust supporters over the age of 65, including our volunteers, staff and members, may be living with the condition today. Making all of our places dementia friendly will help those already visiting, the teams who help open our doors to the nation and it will also benefit those choosing to visit for the first time.

Making our places more welcoming to many more people is right at the heart of our work.

Supporting those with dementia through this important partnership is just one part of a much wider National Trust commitment to ensure as many people as possible feel welcomed at our places.

Since we launched our Companion Card several years ago, which allows existing members to bring one or two carers or companions with them free of charge, more than 26,000 people have applied. This not only opens our doors to those who need support, but ensures they get the best out of their visit.

If you are already a member, or look after someone who is, you can apply for a companion card by calling 0344 800 1895, emailing, or writing to National Trust, PO Box 574, Manvers, Rotherham, S63 3FH



Challenges faced by people living with dementia

Problems with mobility and navigating around the heritage site, for example:

  • finding it difficult to get to the venue
  • struggling with unclear signage
  • finding patterns or shiny surfaces disorientating
  • being overwhelmed by background noise
  • fear of getting lost inside a site; have problems finding toilets or exits
  • fear of not knowing where to go or who to go to for additional support
  • worry other visitors, staff and volunteers will react negatively if they do not follow social cues.

Challenges caused by their memory problems, for example:

  • struggling to remember a different time or era, follow complex interpretations, read maps, guidebooks, exhibition text or leaflets
  • unable to find the right words to describe what they need or want.
  • difficulties with their visual perception and spatial awareness, for example:
    • bumping into objects or barriers
    • having perception issues, which may be heightened due to low light levels or shadows
    • responding to interpretation, such as projections and soundscapes, in unexpected ways.

Problems with paying, for example:

  • having difficulty remembering chip and PIN codes
  • having trouble counting or recognising money, coping with payment methods
  • feeling rushed or worried that they will forget how to pay or forgetting to pay.

Impaired sensed or reduced ability to interact with their environments:

  • people with dementia might find it easier to interact with the site using their senses: looking at visual art, handling objects, listening to music.


Edel Harris





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