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Using sight, sound to trigger dementia patients’ memory

Michael Rubinkam
Associated Press

Easton, Pa. – — From the antique cast-iron stove in the kitchen to the ancient wood-paneled radio in the living room, the decor in The Easton Home comes straight out of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

Which is by design. The old-fashioned rooms are in the dementia wing of the elder-care facility, and are intended to make residents feel at home, help them retrieve memories and get them talking about their younger selves.

It’s reminiscence as therapy.

“As soon as they walk in, they become comfortable … and it just takes them back to a place that they’re familiar with,” said Jennifer Woolley, community life coordinator. “They can talk about their stories and share their experiences, so you’re just walking into the past, and they love it.”

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities increasingly use sight, sound and other sensory cues to stimulate memory and provide a touch of the familiar for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia — part of a broader shift toward specialized memory units that care for this large and growing segment of the population. About 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, a number expected to rise dramatically as baby boomers age.

In Olathe, Kansas, the Cedar Lake Village retirement community is building a memory-care assisted-living facility that includes a 1968 Ford pickup in the courtyard for residents to sit in, tinker with, listen to music “and reminisce about their first vehicle,” said Joanna Randall, executive director. In England, Grove Care Ltd. has “Memory Lane” at its dementia-care facilities, featuring a 1950s-themed pub, post office and grocery store. The Easton Home, about 50 miles north of Philadelphia, converted two rooms into its own version of Memory Lane.

Experts say dementia sufferers’ memories can be triggered by an object, a sound, a smell. Danish researchers found patients placed in a setting that reminded them of their youth were able to summon more autobiographical memories than a group studied in an everyday setting.

While reminiscing won’t reverse the progression of Alzheimer’s and is not guaranteed to work for everyone, it can reduce agitation and wandering, said Ruth Drew, director of family and information services at the Alzheimer’s Association.

“Sensory cues are really the secret to providing what we call comfort care,” said Marguerite McLaughlin, who oversees quality improvement at the American Health Care Association.

Chris Boyce partly credits the surroundings at The Easton Home — and the conversations they start — with making her time with her grandmother, Olga Deacon, who has dementia, more enriching. An antique ironing board and wringer spurred the 90-year-old to recall helping her mother with the ironing.

“I’ve learned more about her in the two months she’s been here than I think I knew before that in a lot of ways,” Boyce said.