There’s a special comfort that comes from nostalgia, reminiscing about the people, places and things we used to do. But for people with dementia, it can be a game changer.
Inside a warehouse in Chula Vista, California, Glenner Town Square caters to people going through the early stages of dementia by providing them with an immersive experience reminiscent of their younger days. It has a diner, a barber shop, a movie theater and even a Ford Thunderbird -- all modeled after post-World War II America.
“It is a fully immersive environment based on a concept called reminiscence therapy… [It] really takes people back to where their strongest memories are, which, for our participants, is typically in the 1950s and 60s,” said Scott Tarde, who developed the concept of Town Square.
Reminiscence therapy is a form of dementia care that has patients discuss past activities, events and experiences with other people in an attempt to induce memories, usually with the help of things from the patients’ past, such as photos, mementos and music. Clinical studies have shown that reminiscence therapy can help with insomnia and agitation in dementia patients.
By providing the service in the form of a daycare center, Glenner Town Square is helping the loved ones of these patients breathe a little easier.
“It just makes my day knowing that my mom is happy -- smiling,” said Kimberly King, whose mom, Jacki Dwyer-Taylor, is among the more than 5.5 million Americans who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia.
King said that her mother’s diagnosis took her by surprise. Today, Dwyer-Taylor, who used to perform in shows at the Starlight Musical Theater in San Diego, struggles to remember once familiar moments and faces from a scrapbook. She can’t even remember her own father.
“It’s been really hard for me and my family to see her decline, especially because she’s such a bubbly and happy lady,” said Karly King, Dwyer-Taylor's granddaughter. King said that she could remember an earlier time when her grandmother would take special care to look after her needs as well as her brother's -- and even her American Girl dolls.
"One time ... I remember going upstairs and going to bed for a few hours. I came back downstairs ... and she had washed the hair of my three American Girl dolls," King said. "She made, like, a little mini dinner thing for them. She had them all lined up for me to play with."
Now, it's Dwyer-Taylor who needs special care. She's a regular visitor to Town Square, where the "main street" is modeled after San Diego, and those who attend are moved from one set to the next as they’re gently guided to participate in activities together.
Jimmy Lydon, 95, was a teenage star during the golden age of cinema, once giving Elizabeth Taylor her first on-screen kiss in 1947’s “Cynthia.”
“Sometimes he gets up in the middle of the night and says he has to go to work and [that] the studio is waiting for him,” said daughter Kathy Lydon.
She said it gives her “goosebumps” thinking about what Town Square is doing for her father, who eats lunch at the diner and sings songs with friends each day. “I know he’s well cared for,” Kathy Lydon said.
With family members of dementia patients now providing more than 18 billion hours of unpaid care, Town Square and facilities like it could one day help to alleviate the strain — especially since the U.S. population is aging and dementia cases are expected to rise.
“Right now it’s about one out of every nine people in this country [who] is a senior,” said Peter Ross, CEO and founder of Senior Helpers and executive of Town Square. “In 2030, it’s one out of five. That’s an amazing demographic change for this country.”
Tanya Carr, whose mother Mary Patterson goes to Town Square, said that the facility has given her mom a purpose again after she seemed to become “depressed” following her Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
“I’d go over in the mornings before work [and] she’d be laying on the couch in her nightie, and I’d say, ‘What’s wrong?’ She says, ‘I just don’t feel good,’” Tanya Carr said. “I think she was a little depressed. I think she just didn’t feel a purpose. [But] rather than focus on being sad about it, I focused on ‘What can we do for her? How can we help her?’”
Mary Patterson's granddaughter Shae-Lin Carr volunteers at Town Square, where she leads her grandmother and her friends in song.
“Volunteering at Town Square has been so, for lack of a better word, life changing,” said Shae-Lin Carr, explaining that the programming keeps her grandma stimulated. "
"Even if she doesn’t remember what happened and why she’s happy, her body is happy and it’s remarkable. [Town Square] is doing amazing things.”
At Town Square, Mary is a celebrity. “She hugs and kisses everybody and puts on a show,” Tanya Carr said. “She feels dignity. She feels needed. It’s affordable care. Instead of paying thousands — literally thousands — in a month, [it’s] under $100 for her to be where I’d rather have her.”
Town Square charges $90 for a full day and $65 for a half-day to care for their family members, according to Ross, making it far more affordable than a nursing home.
“We want to make it available to everybody,” Ross said. “One of the biggest challenges in this country is isolation -- socialization for our seniors. Town Square gives [them] a chance to ... socialize.”
“We have an opportunity to provide a place for folks to [become] seniors with purpose. To allow them to age in place at home and to give families necessary respite time that they really do need,” Ross continued.
Town Square provides seniors with friendship and nostalgia so that each day, when they go back home to their families, they can continue to feel a little more like who they always were, and that’s something to be celebrated.
“We’re celebrating life,” Tanya Carr said. “We’re celebrating grandma; celebrating my mom.”