Why 'time travel' therapy may be the key to treating dementia

Dec 14, 2016 at 1:10 p.m. ET
Image: George Rose/Getty Images

The Glenner Town Square reflects perfect 1950s-style architecture; and if you stepped out of the soda shop or the grocers thinking that you were in the heyday of sock hops and James Dean, rather a time of smartphones, you couldn’t be faulted.

Yet this little township of 24 buildings designed to reflect a bygone era isn’t a movie set; it’s part of a new initiative through the George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Care Centers, a San Diego-based nonprofit devoted to helping people with Alzheimer’s disease.

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Each of the 24 buildings is staffed and habitable, with members of the treatment team dressed in the garb of people who might actually live and work there as they tend to Glenner’s patients. The theory here is that, when these patients spend time in physical environments that remind them of their lives as young adults, they might start remembering their earlier years — which would help improve their mental functions and overall quality of life.

Right now, the Glenner Town Square is slated to open in 2018. Though the Town Square itself is considered incredibly novel, the therapeutic technique that inspired it is actually quite common. Reminiscence therapy uses prompts like old music and photographs to stoke the embers of memories and hopefully rekindle some of the Alzheimer’s and dementia patients’ lost fire.

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This therapy can be effective for patients with memory disorders because some of our earliest, or “milestone,” memories — like graduating from high school or college, getting a first job or a first house, saying your vows or welcoming a child into the world — linger the longest.

As Scott Tarde, the CEO of the Glenner Centers, told The Atlantic, “That 20-year period seems to be where memories are the strongest.”

While walking through the Glenner Town Square won’t be stepping into a time machine, it will be the next best thing — and it might give a whole generation of patients a chance to relive their youth.

More: Watch: Music awakens dementia patients

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