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Aging & Society

This Adult-Care Center is Tapping into Old Memories with Its '50s-style Design. Here's How You Can, Too.

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Stepping into Town Square in Chula Vista, California, is like stepping back in time.

The center, which is a day-care center for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, looks like a town from the 1950s. There’s the kind of diner you’d expect to see on “Happy Days,” a movie theater that plays black-and-white films, a library, a hair salon and a pet shop, all arranged around a central green.

The 50s-style design is very much by design. It employs something called “reminiscence therapy,” which aims to tap into memories of days gone by. This nostalgic environment is thought to have a calming effect on visitors with Alzheimer’s and dementia, who often struggle with short-term memory, but may be able to recall things that happened in their younger days. “The concept of reminiscence therapy says if you can take people back to where their strongest memories are through tangible prompts, typically things like photos and different things that spark memories, it may reduce agitation, improve mood and improve sleep quality,” says Scott Tarde, CEO and executive director of the George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers. Tarde says that this kind of therapy may be a positive step for caregivers looking to help family members impacted by diseases that impair memory. “I think that what’s so powerful about reminiscence therapy is it’s not only for the individual with cognitive deficits, it’s for the family caregiver as well, because they’re getting brought back and [the caregiver is] seeing a glimpse back to who their loved one was prior to the decline in memory,” says Tarde. “It’s a very special thing to be able to create that.”

Even better? Reminiscence therapy is something that family members can try at home. Tarde shared this advice for caregivers and family members interested in tapping into long-term memories.  

Take a walk back in time. With a little creativity, you can transform parts of a room into memory lane. Find old photos of friends and family from your loved one’s earlier years and put them on display. Page through albums together and bring out cherished items, like a wedding dress, to reminisce about those days. Display old letters and post cards, and play music from their school and young adult years. “Music is incredibly powerful,” says Tarde. For some people, it has the power to almost turn back time.

Involve other family members. Ask your brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles about what your loved one used to enjoy doing. Then, see if they have any items they could share to help spark memories. “I think one of the greatest strategies of all is involving as many family members as possible in the process,” says Tarde. “Family caregivers typically feel pretty helpless. This is one area that they can see an impact, and it’s special for them.”

Go on outings tied to history. Make a trip to the local history museum, or drive by old homes and stop in at a beloved old diner. Think about what your loved one might have enjoyed doing back in their 20s and 30s and see if you can create that. At Town Square, Tarde says one of the more popular areas is a small museum that’s curated by a local air and space museum and dedicated to veterans. The model planes have sparked many conversations and memories, wowing family members in the process.  

Find a furry friend. It’s hard to resist smiling around a dog or cat. Tarde says that animals are also a great way to tap into old memories of beloved pets. You don’t have to adopt one (although, bonus if you do). You can visit or volunteer at a shelter, or just ask a friend if you can borrow their pup for an hour. It’s for a good cause! After the animal is out of the picture, keep talking about the memories it inspired of past pets. Take it one step further and draw those pets as you talk.

Know when it’s time for a break (for yourself). Caregiving can be exhausting. Tarde says it’s important to find a place where your loved one can stay so that you can have some space. “Find something that works, whether it’s reminiscence therapy, whether it’s respite care or whether it’s bringing someone into the home if that’s possible,” he says.

Family caregivers need to take care of themselves, too. “We have millions and millions of unpaid family caregivers around the country that really struggle,” says Tarde. “There are resources out there. It’s ok to reach out.”

More about the adult-care center:

The 20,000-square-foot center, which opened last spring, is the result of a strategic business alliance between Senior Helpers, which provides in-home care to seniors, and the George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers, Inc., which provides adult day care and support to families impacted by memory impairment diseases. The Senior Helpers team is franchising the model and expects to open many more like it across the country.

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