For a couple of years, I played at noon every Wednesday in a memory-care home. The residents shuffled down the hall to the dining room for lunch. When they got within earshot of the piano, I’d often hear, “Oh, it’s Wednesday!” Having me there each week oriented them to the calendar.
Visitors entering or leaving this small facility punched in a code to unlock the door. We were cautioned to look behind us as we left, to ensure that no one made it out who shouldn’t have.
Typical of facilities designed for patients with dementia, this one featured hallways that ran in a continuous loop, so residents couldn’t wander away or get lost. There was also a secure courtyard, allowing freedom to go outside without sacrificing safety. And a beauty salon, library, and crafts room—all pretty standard in today’s senior housing.
A new facility in my area takes the standard of care for elders with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia up a notch in their “specialized memory care neighborhood.” It offers the usual activities: game nights, sing-alongs, art projects. But the decor sets it apart. The walls are painted in soft, warm, calming colors. Vintage furniture gives a feeling of home, rather than institution. And the best part: little interactive nooks have been worked into the design, so that residents can spend time doing the kinds of things they did years ago. For example, there’s an “office”—with a manual typewriter, rotary-dial phone, and antique roll-top desk—and a laundry area with an ironing board and iron (electrical cord removed). There’s a nursery, too, with an old-fashioned wooden cradle, rocking chair, and a lifelike baby doll. I’m betting this is a popular spot. I’ve observed many women with dementia taking comfort in having a doll or stuffed animal to care for.
Just when I thought I’d seen the ultimate memory-care facility, my daughter sent me an article about a whole village in Holland designed specifically for people with memory impairment. This gated community is a stellar example of “architecture for protected living,” where residents move about freely, visiting cafes and grocery stores, attending concerts and club meetings. In this self-contained world, staff members wear street clothes and doors remain unlocked. Residents live in a “themed house” of their choice, decorated to reflect their previous lifestyle. (See photos here.)
John Henley, journalist for The Guardian, toured the facility near Amsterdam and made an 8-minute audiofile you can listen to here. “It’s all about making residents feel like they’re normal,” he observes. Henley pops into a music club meeting and reports in the accompanying article published on the newspaper’s website:
Across the piazza, in the warmly lit, wood-panelled cafe, careworker Helene Westerink is leading 30-odd residents in the weekly classical music club. Slowly, as Strauss, Offenbach and Beethoven fill the room, white-haired heads lift off chests, eyes brighten, feet tap, hands start to clap. Joe Jacob smiles delightedly as he recognises the can-can.
Now Mary-Ann van den Brug’s fingers are playing Für Elise on an imaginary keyboard; she once taught at the conservatory. Another resident conducts the Blue Danube; a third starts tapping her teaspoon against her saucer in time to the Radetsky March. “There’s one woman here,” says Westerink, “who hasn’t spoken for years. But she sings along to all these tunes. You know, sometimes it’s not just the residents who feel good about being here.”
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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