Patients go back in time at ‘Dementiaville’

An artificial village, built specially for dementia patients, has caused a storm in the world of elderly care. Can it be right to finish one’s days in fantasy world, even if it is a pleasant one?

With its rows of 1950s-style houses, pretty enclosed gardens, theatres and cafes, Hogeway looks like any other Dutch village. Gardeners and shopkeepers go about their day, and the village’s elderly inhabitants wander freely around the streets.

This 23-home settlement, however, is far from normal. Solely inhabited by dementia patients, Hogeway is a care home in disguise.

The village is a perfect recreation of the 1950s, when many of its inhabitants were children. Nurses dress as workers to create an air of normality. And though they stroll through the streets, shops and houses, none of the villagers are permitted to leave.

This ‘Dementiaville’, as it has come to be known, could be the first of many. Today, entrepreneurs are planning a similar community near Bern, in Switzerland. Markus Voegtlin, the man behind the project, says life in the village will be ‘a trip back in time’.

For advanced patients, it is hoped, these artificial surroundings could bring happiness that is impossible in the real world. Because dementia affects short-term recollection, the familiar worlds of the past can often seem safer and more comforting than the present. In the controlled conditions of an artificial village, patients feel they have independence and freedom – a sense that makes them more contented, however illusory it really is.

Creating comforting environments to support Alzheimer’s sufferers is nothing new. One American nursing home, for example, provides patients with dolls and teddy bears to care for. This make-believe activity, they say, dramatically increases wellbeing. In Germany, fake bus stops take the good-willed fooling further. Placed outside care homes, they trick escaped patients into waiting – until they are picked up by a carer, and returned inside.

Ignorance is bliss?

Human dignity, some argue, is under attack when we trick people into believing in a fake reality. Knowingly to fool the vulnerable is to rob them of the last vestiges of respect – as if we were to pretend to a child that a grandparent is merely ‘sleeping’ when they are in fact dead. Respect for another person’s dignity is more important than any amount of illusory comfort. We must face the world as it really is, on our own terms, as best we can.

When reality promises terrible suffering, others argue, nothing is better than a little contentment. And if an illusion can give Alzheimer’s sufferers peace of mind in a world of confusion and pain, we should offer them the option at least. What’s more, if reality condemns vulnerable people to a difficult death, clinging to it is not just foolish, but cruel.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather die happy, or with a full awareness of you life and what it meant?
  2. To what extent can a patient with severe dementia be living in ‘reality’?

Activities

  1. Research a charity or business that aims to improve life for people with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Imagine you are applying for funding for the company. Write a pitch that explains why your organisation makes a positive contribution to people’s lives, and why it should qualify for funding.
  2. Design a ‘Dementiaville’, carefully constructed to create a happy and comforting environment for people with dementia. What do you include to create the best environment for these patients?

Some People Say...

“A pleasant fantasy is always better than the unpleasant truth.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is dementia likely to affect me?
Statistically, most of us will experience dementia – either ourselves, or through a friend or member of our family – at some point in our lives. In the UK alone, 750,000 people have dementia, at an estimated financial cost of £20 billion a year. Different charities are exploring different ways to tackle the problem: some are developing ways to help older people connect with memory through old photos and artefacts, others run outdoor activities to improve self-confidence and concentration.
So is this a growing problem?
Absolutely. In the UK, it is estimated that the number of people with dementia will rise to one million. And with the population of the Western world is growing older all the time, society is going to have to take responsibility for more dementia sufferers – than ever before.

Word Watch

Dementia
This word comes from the Latin De, meaning without, and Mens, meaning mind. It means the loss of mental capacities, to a greater extent than what might be expected from normal ageing, as a result of injury or illness.
Entrepreneurs
An entrepreneur is someone who starts up new businesses, often with new ideas, or at personal financial risk. Entrepreneurs generally work for profit, although there has recently been a rise in social entrepreneurship, where new organisations work towards doing good as well as making money.
Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s is a progressive form of dementia, that is often related to age, though it can affect younger patients. At first patients may become forgetful or unable to recognise friends and family. In the advanced stages of the disease, they may experience hallucinations, and body functions are gradually lost, leading to death.

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