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San Diego Non-Profit Builds Village To Help Alzheimer's Patients Cope


A San Diego nonprofit is taking an unorthodox approach to help seniors cope with Alzheimer's disease. It's building a village for them to spend time during the day. It's not residential. But the village is modeled on San Diego in the 1950s, complete with vintage cars, period music, payphones and shops from the pre-shopping mall, pre-Wal-Mart era. The nonprofit says research suggests this type of visual reminder might improve cognitive function and quality of life of Alzheimer's patients over 65.

Scott Tarde is the CEO of the nonprofit, the George G. Glenner Alzheimer's Family Care Centers. Welcome to the program.

SCOTT TARDE: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.

SIEGEL: What research shows that this sort of place actually works for Alzheimer's patients?

TARDE: Yeah. So what's interesting about what's called reminiscence therapy - which is not a new source of treatment and care - it's been shown to reduce agitation, improve mood and actually improve sleep quality. So it's something that we've been utilizing in our centers for some time, but now we're taking it to a level where we're creating more of a immersive experience for our participants and for their families.

SIEGEL: But does research show that Alzheimer's patients respond to sights and sounds that are from the time of their youth but may not have been important to them in their youth? That is, I'm pushing 70. I grew up in an urban high-rise. I could have moved to San Diego. But I wouldn't find a mock San Diego of the 1950s reminiscent of my youth.

TARDE: Yeah. It's a very interesting question. I think one of the things that we're really focused on is our expansion. And what we want to do is to create these environments that are reminiscent of the individual's past wherever they may be. So certainly kind of a Main Street, USA feel is consistent across many individuals' youths. But what we've seen is that when you take certain prompts - for example, we have a participant who saw we have a 1959 Thunderbird.

Soon as he saw that vehicle, he was immediately triggered back to that time in his youth where he saw kind of a connection. And not only for himself, but for his family member, his wife, who was there as well. So you see those types of prompts are able to bring individuals back to that time in their life where there is a connection.

SIEGEL: Now, these buildings in the entire town square, they're miniature. They're not full size.

TARDE: Yeah. So the thought process is that the building itself will be about 8,500 square feet. So we're talking about quite a large space. Anywhere between 15 and - to 25 fully designed storefronts, everything from a fully functioning movie theater. So there's nothing fake, if you will, or a facade about the actual storefronts themselves. The participants and their families will be able to go inside. They'll be able to view a movie. They'll be able to go into a pet store. They'll be able to go into a '50s-style diner. So this is an opportunity for individuals to do things that, honestly, they really don't have the opportunity to do now.

SIEGEL: And the movies in the movie theater will be Doris Day movies and things from 1958?

TARDE: It will. It will be consistent with that time period.

SIEGEL: And are you sure that this wouldn't be - for people who haven't completely lost touch with the present that it wouldn't be confusing at all as to what's happening during the day when they go and visit 1958?

TARDE: You know, I don't know about confusing. I think what we know about Alzheimer's - and we have an incredible medical advisory committee that we've spent many, many months working with on this project - is that the reality is that short-term memory is poor. And so when we're able to create an environment again where we're able to trigger some of those long-term memories, we find that that will be incredibly beneficial for our participants and their family, certainly a lot more than any kind of confusion we'd create about the change from the outside, if you will, to the inside.

SIEGEL: Scott Tarde of the George G. Glenner Alzheimer's Family Care Centers. Thank you very much for talking with us.

TARDE: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.