BIG Pit has launched a new series of underground tours designed to help people living with dementia to mark the condition’s national awareness week.
Believed to be the first of its kind in Wales and the wider world, the operators of the National Coal Museum have worked with groups to create a bespoke experience for those with the condition.
The first underground tours took place on Tuesday at the former Blaenavon colliery to mark Dementia Awareness Week, which started on Monday, May 15 and runs until Friday, May 21.
The dementia friendly underground tours follow the same principles of the regular tours, but with a few adjustments, according to tour guide Wayne Smith.
“With the dementia friendly tours, we help the group with their kit before they go down the mine,” said Mr Smith, a guide of four years and also known as ‘Smithy’.
“We give them the same briefing that we give to other groups.
“When we go down, we take them to slightly different stops and we tell them about the link to coal mining, and the equipment used such as the safety lamp and self-rescue gear.
“One slight difference is that we don’t tell them about modern coal mining techniques but the mining from the Victorian period.”
The National Museum Wales centre has worked with dementia groups since 2015 to find a way of incorporating an underground tour which would be considerate of those with the condition.
“It is exactly the same tour as for people without dementia, although we have cut the length of the tour so that they are not underground for so long,” added Mr Smith.
“The tour is also slightly slower paced and it is less about the figures and numbers, more about the history and the interesting aspects of the museum.
“But all the information is the same – nothing changes on that side of things.”
Mr Smith was one of the first guides at Big Pit to be recognised by the Alzheimer’s Society as dementia friendly, due to a personal link to the condition.
“All the museum staff took a brief course in dementia on our training course last year,” he said.
“For me, my father has the starting signs of dementia and I felt that I had to do my part in regards to these tours,” he said.
“We’ve taken down one or two groups with people living with dementia as a test and they have thoroughly enjoyed it but the guides have enjoyed it too.”
He added: “Last year, I took a group down where one of the men had dementia.
“I didn’t know that he had been a miner for 23 years and his companion said it was the first time they had heard so much from him in ages.
“The tour brought back all the memories of mining.
“I saw him at the launch and he remembered me so we talked about mining.
“It is fantastic when you see someone with dementia talking and remembering from their past.
“You can see that they appear much freer.
“The man from the group told me about the different dates of when he was mining, when he started and finished, his safety lamp and other gear.
“Going underground brought it all back to him.”
Lynne Neagle AM, who chairs a cross-party group on the condition, joined a number of representatives from dementia groups and the museum operator at the launch in Blaenavon.
“The launch of the dementia friendly tours at Big Pit is brilliant and shows the museum is leading the way in terms of handling the condition,” said the Torfaen AM.
“It is fantastic that the staff have done this work to make it happen.
“I think that people living with dementia should have access to the same opportunities we all have in society.
“It is vitally important for people to connect with memories that they may have of family members or the past.
“If they can create a dementia friendly underground tour in Blaenavon, which comes with its particular challenges and is an unusual thing to have created, it shows the ambition of the scheme to help attractions become dementia friendly.
“The tours offer a new perspective to ease the nerves of the families of people living with dementia.
“They will be aware they needs are being considered.
“If Big Pit is able to offer underground tours that cater for the needs of people with dementia, then I am sure that other museums can follow suit.”
Sharon Ford, the museum’s learning manager, added: “This is a ground-breaking idea and it came from an audit as a group said they wanted to go underground.
“We thought that it could be just a site tour as it would be a health and safety nightmare to go into a dark and enclosed space.”
“These are not the usual ideas put forward to help someone with dementia but these tours are centred around the group, while other tours are focused on the guide.
“The dementia tours are slowed down and the guide will talk to the group at the start to find out if there are any questions.
“The guide will answer those questions and allay any fears from the group.
“In a way, the group is then able to direct the tour that they are on.
“It is about them and the guides are aware of that and responsive to the group and their needs.
“The idea is that it is not about us telling people what they can and can’t do, it is about them telling us and finding the solutions.
“We have said that this is the worst place to bring people with dementia so if we can do it, then other places can.
“As far as we know, no other places in Wales and the wider world are doing these tours.
“We have had interest in the tours from Europe after I attended an open air museums conference in Sweden.
“Blaenavon remains a pioneer in many ways.”