What if, instead of languishing in front of a TV, people with dementia could step inside elaborately constructed sets designed to help them rekindle their pasts?

No, it’s not a fantasy, nor a scene out of “Pleasantville.” Across the country, some residential and adult day programs are diving deeply into the concept of reminiscence therapy – which uses photos, music, memorabilia and other tools – by creating immersive environments painstakingly designed to replicate moments from the distant past, when older people who now have dementia were teens or young adults in their prime. The idea? To spark long-term memory that, perplexingly, is sometimes still tucked away in people with dementia.

Reminiscence Therapy Bringing Memories Back to Life

In Chula Vista, California, a building has been transformed into a 9,000-square-foot indoor time capsule of a 1950s town. Launched in 2018, Glenner Town Square, an interactive senior day care center, currently has about 78 participants enrolled, many in their early 80s. Professional caregivers guide them through a series of storefronts: a diner with a jukebox where meals are served, an old-fashioned clinic with a registered nurse, a barber and beauty shop, a pet store, a movie theater playing classics, for example.

In the city hall, outfitted with vintage desks and manual typewriters, a former accountant taps into memories of her working years, performing never-forgotten tasks and reawakening a sense of purpose; staff engage with her as if she were the real town accountant. In the museum, curated by the San Diego Air & Space Museum, large model airplanes hang from the ceiling, sparking a flood of recollections for veterans with dementia, which, for one daughter, was particularly emotional, having never heard her father talk so freely about his military experience, says Scott Tarde, Glenner Town Square CEO. Other memory-jogging activities include: tinkering with a 1959 T-Bird in the garage; browsing old-fashioned clothing and accessories at the ’50s-style department store, reminiscing about styles of yesteryear. Cost: $95 a day.

“It definitely made sense to me to create an environment that resonated strongly with people,” Tarde says, “instead of just four walls and a television.”

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