CHULA VISTA, California -- In their 52 years of marriage, Mary Patterson, an Army corps veteran, had always been the planner and decision maker while her husband, Ray, a fellow veteran, has been the more passive, calming one. But now Mary, 89, is dealing with Alzheimer's and has moments where it takes time to recognize Ray, her primary caregiver with help from their daughter.
Ray gets a few weekly breaks, though, when Mary goes to "reminiscence therapy" at Town Square.
The innovative Town Square program, run by the George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Center for individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s, creates an immersive, hyper-real living environment that mimics the time when participants were between 10 and 30 and constructing their strongest memories. The goal is to comfort participants and reduce agitation as well as help prolong the inevitable: putting them in long-term residential care.
“As a nurse, I became familiar with reminiscence when I was working with hospice patients,” said Juliette Shellman, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut School of Nursing who studies reminiscence therapy.
“As a new practitioner, I noticed that as I asked older adults—those with early dementia—when I asked them about their past, that was almost like a transformation took place,” said Shellman. “If they were looking down or depressed and they started talking about the past, you could see they all of a sudden [had] a certain energy. They felt revived.”
When Town Square first opened in the Glenner Center in San Diego in 2018, it was designed to look like a Southern California business district in the 1950s, when most of its patients were growing up, getting married, and having children. The Town Square concept is now expanding across the country with the help of Senior Helpers, a national provider of personalized in-home senior care. Their latest location, which opened last fall in Baltimore, is designed to look like another 1950s town.
Three times a week, Ray drops Mary off at Town Square, where she can engage and joke with staff who refer to her as “Miss Mary.” The program costs $95 a day— which isn’t cheap—but it's much more affordable than putting a relative in longer-term residential care or private care-giving.
VICE News visited Town Square with Mary and Ray Patterson to better understand this pioneering form of palliative care for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients and to explore the emotional challenges and financial burdens for a family caregiver who's up against one of the most challenging and expensive diseases to care for.
Cover: Mary Patterson, 89, looks out the window of her home in Chula Vista, California. Patterson suffers from Alzheimer’s and lives in the care of her husband Ray and daughter Tanya. Photo: Cassandra Giraldo for VICE News.