There's no time like the past, wherever you are

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James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

Let there be no more questions about whether creating long-term care facilities to reflect different eras is a good idea.

Word of these “retro” communities first seemed to flair up about 10 years ago. An old “Main Street” here a “Downtown” there. It wasn't clear whether the greater long-term care profession really thought they were worthwhile or merely the whim of some developers hoping to capitalize on nostalgic tendencies.

Mostly, I had chalked them up to experimental dabbling that could neither be proven nor disproven as better than simple, comfortable living in current day.

Then this week I heard about fascinating experiment in Germany — a part of the former East Germany, in fact. Providers decided to recreate what seniors there had grown up with, and that meant presenting not only a society that doesn't exist any more but also a country that has been gone for almost 30 years.

The NPR story reported on how a German nursing home has recreated an old Eastern Bloc environment for dementia patients.

Contrary to what many might believe, the former East Germany was not a nightmare for all of its residents. Sure, it had a huge number of residents spying on fellow neighbors — roughly 1 in every 7 citizens was employed to report to authorities on friends and acquaintances. Buildings and surroundings were gray. Russian influence reigned, many goods were in short supply and modern technology was stifled for almost everyone.

But with the heavy hand of communist socialism also came comfort that certain work and living conditions would consistently be there. Modest, if not downright humble, conditions might not have had Western European or American flash, but they also promised protection from what was painted as destructive capitalistic competition and taking advantage of the “little guy.” Everyone had the same shot, at least in theory.

And so it is this generally less stressful existence that the AlexA Residence for Senior Citizens in Dresden seeks to recreate for its elderly residents.

Residents, for example, can visit a mockup of an Intershop store. It was once a popular chain before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 but no longer exists. Like any grocery store anywhere, the re-creation creates a comforting location where residents can while away their day. It holds certain products, even a former GDR television guide, that bring back the old days.

A pair of "memory rooms" reimagine the East Germany of the 1960s and 1970s. They are filled with era appliances, furniture, mementos and even aged wallpaper patterns. The effect is calming and therapeutic; ironically, the effect has also been to energize previously lethargic, nonresponsive seniors, caregivers say.

It's not the poignant, often humorous setting posed in the 2003 German film “Good Bye Lenin!” – in which a son tries to recreate East German conditions for a fragile mother coming out of a coma — but many of the touches are quite similar.

The AlexA Residence is believed to be the only facility of its kind in the former East Germany. But others employing similar strategies are popping up around the world. There is Glenner Town Square, for example, a “dementia village” that is scheduled to open this year in San Diego. It will recreate a 1950s and 1960s style American “Main Street.” Numerous others already exist, in one form or another.

Residents feel safer in familiar surroundings, and some find new energy and new abilities to communicate. Experts say it's further proof that compassionate caregiving and a soothing, familiar culture are invaluable to fragile, often demented, seniors,

If it assists in boosting the function and wellbeing of the residents, then all the more power to them and full speed ahead, no matter what the place — or supposed year.

Follow Editor James M. Berklan @JimBerklan.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.