As the number of dementia cases rise due in part to the aging Baby Boomer generation, doctors and scientists seek new, creative ways to address the needs of persons whose cognitive decline cause memory lapses, aggression, confusion, and wandering. For many American caregivers, these concerns top the list of dementia symptoms that cause danger, concern or health issues. They can result in injury, lapses in medication or exercise regimen and even death. One organization that has branched out and is trying something new, Glenner Town Square, as a way to help dementia-afflicted seniors relive bygone days and relax during the day.
Glenner Town Square
Modeled after the Netherlands project called Hogeweyk, Glenner Town Square is designed to look and feel like San Diego, California, between 1953 and 1961. Why? It falls when most people with dementia were in their teens, 20s, or 30s. When they begin to lose memories, as dementia patients commonly do, they can return to their younger years more comfortably, especially because their environment looks and feels the way it would have in their youth. The town will be fully staffed by trained caregivers, nurses, and doctors. It will feature outdoor activities in a central green space and a restaurant, town hall, and shopping area. Glenner Town Square, which will be completed in 2018, intends to provide only day care for seniors, allowing them to return to their families at night.
This type of treatment is an extension of a tried-and-true technique, reminiscence therapy, which is frequently used to help seniors with dementia. However, it takes it one step further. Rather than relying on just discussion or certain objects to spark memories and reminiscence, “time-travel therapy” allows dementia patients to really “be” in their past. An immersive environment for this type of therapy, especially when fully staffed by trained caregivers (as is the case in Glenner Town Square), provides a safe space for seniors with dementia to remember the past, stimulated by familiar scenes. Working with architects and set designers from the San Diego opera, the designers of Glenner Town Square intend to match exactly the buildings and social environments of old.
Time-travel, or timeline, therapy is relatively new, but it has older precedents. Neuroscientists have shown that humans have a unique ability to “travel” back into our memories and relive events. The technique of taking patients back to an event from their childhood or youth, particularly a traumatic experience or a mistake-filled with regret, is utilized frequently by hypnotherapists and others looking to help adults reflect and move on from the past. Patients envision as many details as possible, often feeling very much like they are back in time. They work through their struggles with the help of a therapist. Some therapists even take patients back to their time in the womb, or in a past life, to isolate and discuss troublesome experiences.
Use of this therapy with seniors with dementia presents new challenges and opportunities. Much like those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dementia sufferers can use time-travel therapy to relieve emotional memories or spark new mental connections. Since the memories that persist most often are from childhood and early adulthood, like marriage, children, graduations, or buying a first house, seniors with dementia can find comfort in the surroundings of their youth. Seniors find comfort in revisiting those times, even when they are not lost in memories. Think of it as work the brain must do. When a senior with memory loss believes they are back in their early 20s, their brain is under extreme stress in an environment that looks like 2017. It must absorb the cell phones, entertainment, faces, and aesthetics of 2017 and try to make it seem that it is still 1959. That work causes stress and confusion, even aggression, resulting in seniors wandering, arguing or experiencing anxiety. By taking away much of that stimuli, patients’ brains allow discussion of experiences or challenges with less cognitive stress.
Trying time-travel therapy at home
A family may not have the funds that it takes to transform a space into a loved one’s 1958 home. But it can make some changes that support this type of reminiscence therapy, even on a budget. If the loved one has objects from childhood, such as photos, music, television shows or clothes, place them around the house, or have them accessible during social time. Ask them how they got these objects and what memories it brings up. The simple act of discussing the past and stimulating memories and working through tough moments from the past can help keep the brain healthier for longer.
Berger, Hugo. Take a therapeutic time travel to unburden yourself. The National, July 16, 2012. Available at http://www.thenational.ae/lifestyle/well-being/take-a-therapeutic-time-travel-to-unburden-yourself. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
Cytowic, Richard E. Time Travel: The Trip of a Lifetime. Psychology Today, June 2, 2011. Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-fallible-mind/201106/time-travel-the-trip-lifetime. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
Hurley, Amanda Kolson. Time-Travel Therapy. The Atlantic, January/February 2017. Available at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/01/time-travel-therapy/508787/. Retrieved January 8, 2017.