Fake Towns Could Help People With Alzheimer’s Live Happier Lives

Model towns meant to spark memories could help patients with dementia

A concept design for the completed Glenner Town Square. San Diego Opera/George G. Glenner Alzheimer's Family Centers, Inc.

When San Diego’s Glenner Town Square opens, it will be like stepping into a time warp. Everything from the hospital to the local diner to the city hall at its center will look like it was taken straight out of the 1950s, reminiscent of years and architectural styles gone by. However, this isn’t a new tourist attraction: it’s meant to help people living with Alzheimer's disease to remember their happiest days.

When completed, Glenner Town Square will be a fully functional (if somewhat small) and self-contained city center complete with a classic diner, beauty salon and library. The center is currently being built inside an 11,000-square-foot former warehouse and is being designed to evoke youthful memories of many elderly people currently living with Alzheimer’s Disease, Pam Kragen reports for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“We have so many family caregivers who cannot take their loved ones to the movie theater or to a restaurant because they don't know what those interactions are going to be like,” Scott Tarde, CEO of the Glenner Center, tells Linda Poon for CityLab. “So we wanted to be able to provide these experiences in a safe environment.”

city hall
A model of Glenner Town Square's city hall, based on San Diego's 1950s-era real-life city hall. San Diego Opera

Caring for people with Alzheimer’s-related dementia can be stressful for both the patient and their family. Traditional round-the-clock care in homes can be very expensive, but caring for a parent or family member with dementia can be a struggle for people without specialized training. At the same time, living with the disease can be frustrating for the patients, who can become disoriented and lash out. While traditional therapy for Alzheimer’s patients tends to rely on nursing homes and drugs, in recent years centers like Glenner Town Square have begun popping up in communities across the world as a means to care for people with dementia while exposing them to things aimed at triggering happy memories, Poon reports.

“Structure is very important for individuals [with dementia],” Tarde tells Poon. “If you do not engage them, behaviors can start to escalate in the evening because there wasn't a lot of mental stimulation during the day.”

While Glenner Town Square is meant to provide day care for elderly dementia patients, others do provide round-the-clock care and community. One of the first examples of a center structured around this technique (known as “reminiscence therapy”) is Hogewey, a small, enclosed village built outside of Amsterdam that provides dormitories, shops and community spaces for residents with dementia to safely live more independent lives, Ben Tinker reported for CNN.

"We have Dutch design, Dutch cultures, Dutch lifestyles, but the concept is to value the person, the individual... to support them to live their life as usual, and you can do that anywhere," Yvonne van Amerongen, one of Hogewey’s founders, told Tinker.

Glenner Town Square is being designed and built by scenic carpenters and designers with the San Diego Opera, with plans to begin operations in 2018. By building an experience for people with dementia, the center could help provides some sense of structure and normalcy for those who have become unmoored from their memories.

A room inside city hall, complete with working typewriter and books that visitors with dementia can read and write with George G. Glenner Alzheimer's Family Centers, Inc.

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