A Town Designed to Make Them Remember
On a recent Thursday morning, some 50 seniors were deposited, one by one, at a nondescript warehouse in Chula Vista, just outside San Diego. Their loved ones checked them in at the front desk, and then a helper swiped a keycard, unlocking a door to a windowless gray antechamber, where ’50s music played. “We affectionately call this area the time warp,” Scott Tarde, the CEO of the establishment, told me. “This is a transition area between 2018 and 1953.” Another swipe of the keycard unlocked a second door, which opened onto an elaborate 9,300-square-foot built environment, much like a stage set, with a diner, an old-timey movie theater, a quaint city hall, and 11 other storefronts, many of them built around a large stretch of AstroTurf.
This is Town Square, a daytime care facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia that attempts to engage participants with reminiscence therapy. The idea is to evoke an earlier era, which prompts participants to hark back to their most powerful memories, the ones indelibly etched between the ages of 10 and 30. Graduating high school.Falling in love for the first time. Getting married. Having kids. Several institutions around the world are experimenting with reminiscence therapy, including, notably, De Hogeweyk, a 9-acre nursing home just outside Amsterdam that opened in 2008.
Inside the diner, women in their 70s and 80s and 90s cradled and cooed at baby dolls that were weighted to feel real. In the cinema, participants belted out Christmas carols. Throughout the day, they painted, petted rabbits and rats, exercised on the lawn, and played bingo and bocce ball. It was unclear where participants thought they were. What was clear, however, was that they interacted with one another in ways not always available to those with dementia. Susie, who had been an accountant for several decades, was under the impression that she was employed at Town Square. She organized invoices and helped however she could, passing out lunch, tidying up after others. Jim, a former Navy SEAL, said he was happy to be here among what he sometimes thought was a group from his church. Mary P., a woman who used humor to compensate for her confusion, said she loves San Diego. “Look around,” she said, swinging her arm to gesture at all the storefronts. “It has everything.”