A Modern Dementia-Care Experiment in an Old-A Modern Dementia-Care Experiment in an Old-Fashioned SettingFashioned Setting

A San Diego dementia-care day program plans to help seniors feel more comfortable by using movie-set design techniques to recreate streetscapes from their youth. The project will feature ‘50s-era music and films, a vintage jukebox, and even a 1959 Ford Thunderbird. Developers hope the project will bring up positive memories for people in the program, and the concept has some lessons for anyone who cares for a parent with dementia.

What the Town Square center will offer to seniors

The Glenner Center is building the ‘50s-themed Town Square center, which is scheduled to open in 2018. Unlike Glenner’s other adult day programs for people with dementia, this one will have the sights and sounds of the ‘50s and ‘60s throughout, thanks to retro “storefronts” designed by San Diego Opera’s Scenic Studios to evoke the shops, diners, and streetscapes of mid-20th century Southern California, all within a 15,000-square foot building for sidewalk strolls in all weather. Each shop or stop along the way will offer something for seniors to do, whether it’s watching a favorite film from their youth, making art and crafts, or enjoying a hot cup of joe.

Why planners focused on young-adult experiences

The ambitious project isn’t cheap. The projected cost is $3 million, and the Glenner Center has set up a fundraising page to help defray the costs of the dementia-care project. But the center, which was founded by USCD Alzheimer’s researcher Dr. George Glenner, hopes that the set designs and streetscape will give participants “a higher quality of life; specifically, anticipated improved mood, reduced agitation and improved sleep patterns.”

One of the Glenner Center’s cornerstones for working with dementia patients is reminiscence therapy, which uses vintage everyday items and media to spark memories in patients. The center’s CEO told the San Diego Reader that over the course of a lifetime, memories made between the ages of 15 and 35 tend to be the most durable. For Glenner participants, most of whom are in their 80s, that makes the late ‘50s and early ‘60s the ideal date range for remembering special moments. Those memories can help them feel connected to their surroundings, which may help relieve some of the disorientation many people with dementia feel.

How to use reminiscence therapy techniques with loved ones

According to The Atlantic, which published a feature story on the Glenner Center’s Town Square project, reminiscence therapy is a longstanding approach to helping people with dementia. Using RT can be as simple as leafing through an old photo album together, listening to vintage records, or talking about adventures and people from decades past.

If you have a parent with dementia, knowing that earlier memories are often the strongest can make it easier to make better connections. These items may spark conversations:

  • High school and college yearbooks
  • Wedding, baby and family photos from your parents’ early adulthood
  • Old clothes, toys, and household items
  • Movies, TV shows, radio plays, and music from their late teens through mid-30s
  • Vintage issues of popular magazines like Life, Time, and Photoplay (film news), as well as bestselling books from that era

You may be surprised by how much your parents remember from that time, and you may learn some new things about their early lives, too. You can Learn more about Alzheimer’s care at SeniorAdvisor.com and read about community programs to help with dementia on the blog.

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance writer whose childhood was made awesome by her grandmothers, great-grandmother, great-aunts and -uncles, and their friends.


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