Thursday, March 08, 2018

Village of the demented

Forget spring, it’s winter when a not-so-young woman’s fancy turns to thoughts of aging. And, in my experience, that fancy turning happens at some point between the ages of 65 and 70. It’s the signing up for Medicare. It’s the odd and occasional bone creak. It’s the conversations that, increasingly, turn to health issues. Who’s had a hip replacement? Who just slipped on a pinecone in a church parking lot and broke her elbow? (Asking for a cousin, errrr, friend.)

But mostly, given that we’re young old, not old old, most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about dementia.

Oh, when a friend’s parent gets diagnosed with Alzheimer’s we are naturally sympathetic, especially given that there may be a genetic connection. When it’s someone closer in age with way-too-early onset, we shudder, we worry, we ask the spouse what we can do, we whisper updates to each other.

On the genetic side of the dementia equation, I’m holding some pretty good cards. My grandmother Rogers – the longest lived person (97) on my father’s side – pretty much had it all together up until the end: sharp, opinionated, testy, and all there. The one instance of senility I ever saw with her was the last day she lived in her house – the place where she’d lived for 60+ years, where she’d raised her family, buried her husband and sons. It was moving day – Nanny was going to live with my (sainted) Aunt Margaret – and she was sitting there, looking through the phone book, frustrated. “I just want to see my name and address for the last time,” she told me. She was looking through the “T’s”, for Trainor, her maiden name. I’m sure there were other little memory lapses over the next few years, but she remained on her game.

On my mother’s side, my Aunt Mary will turn 93 in a couple of weeks. Sure, she’s slowed down in terms of getting around, but she still has all her marbles. And, as with my grandmother Rogers, we’re talking about a mighty full bag of marbles.

So I’ve got a relatively high degree of confidence that I’ll be spared the full dementia sentence, and will just experience more and more of the run-of-the-mill memory lapses, the lost words, the ‘what’s his name?’s’, the ‘why did I just go upstairs?’

That said, if becoming demented isn’t a huge worry, it’s always there, lurking in deep background. What if? What if? What if?

But if it were to happen, I think I’ll learn a few words in Dutch and somehow, perhaps with my last grip on reality, get myself over to Hogeweyk, The Netherlands, the first “dementia village” in the world, excepting, I guess, the fictional town in the cult classic The King of Hearts. (At least it was a cult classic around here, where it ran at the late and occasionally lamented Central Square Cinema for years. I don’t think the movie was actually any good. It’s just that you had to experience it. At the Central Square Cinema. Sort of like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, midnight at the Exeter Street Theatre. King of Hearts. Rocky Horror. Seems like the old memory’s holding strong. What a relief.)

Back to the topic that’s top of my still highly-functioning mind:

Dementia villages are gated communities designed for people who suffer from dementia, a term used to describe a set of symptoms (such as memory loss and confusion) that are caused by a variety of brain diseases. Hogeweyk’s 150 residents live in six-room houses, each designed around one of four “lifestyles”. These are selected for patients after tests and interviews alongside their families. Anja (not her real name) and her housemates live in a “traditional” home. They eat starchy stamppot stews and have a sewing machine that says it is “Made in West Germany”. “You won’t find Danish [modern or minimalist] design here,” says Eloy van Hal, who founded the village in 2008. The neighbouring house is furnished with pink floral wallpaper and kitschy plastic chandeliers; all part of the “urban” style.(Source: The Economist)

Hmmm. Don’t know about that stamppot stew. Maybe American chop suey? And the Dutch apparently have a different definition of what constitutes the “urban” style than I do. Pink floral wallpaper? Kitschy plastic chandeliers? Me? I’d be happier with my own personal urban style. Or maybe even the Ethan Allen ye olde colonial maple style of my childhood.

Hogeweyk’s allowance of small freedoms gives peace of mind to people who have lost a part of theirs. Grouping residents by lifestyles is meant to establish continuity between their former lives and the nursing facility. The idea is based on reminiscence therapy, which holds that anxiety in dementia patients can be reduced by creating a familiar environment. It is catching on. A dementia home in Rotterdam has built a “remembrance museum” in its basement where residents can ogle over childhood artefacts.

What would be in the US version, and would I be happy to ogle it? Only so many Mickey Mouse wallets and Davey Crockett “coonskin” caps I want to look at. And I understand that most of the Tiny Tears dolls that survived are now suffering from some plastic-rotting disease that’s akin to leprosy, only for dolls. (Aside to V: is your Tiny still holding her own?) What I’d really like to see is a piggy bank made out of a plastic Clorox bottle (with corks for feet). And if someone found one of those giant pooner marbles, a clear one with a metal elephant embedded in it, I’d be delighted to see it.

There are dementia villages in Germany, too, which might be a better fit. I may even have race memory of a smattering of German, what with all those war movies (Macht schnell!) and listening to my German grandmother’s German version of Spanglish. (“Go bei your mommy.”)

In Dresden, one nursing home has a room set up to recall the former East Germany. A poster of Erich Honecker, a former leader of the East German communist party, looms over communist paraphernalia and bulky cassette tapes playing 1960s hits.

Dear Lord, please save me from ever becoming so demented that I’d be happy to see the US equivalent of Erich Honecker. Spiro Agnew, maybe?

Sometimes fakery keeps residents safe. One home in Düsseldorf has a fake bus stop. Residents who decide, in their confusion, that they want to go somewhere else tend to line up patiently there. After they have waited for a bus that will never come, a carer lures them back to their homes.

I can see me now, sitting in a fake Red Line station, waiting for the Alewife train. Or, lurching further back down memory lane, standing outside a fake Ulian’s, hoping that the 19 Cherry Valley bus would show up before I froze to death.

So forget fleeing to The Netherlands. Let’s get some dementia villages going in the US. Fast forward a few years and there are gong to be plenty of folks who could use one. Even if, with luck, I won’t be one of them.

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