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The Past of the Future: Building Time Machines for Dementia Sufferers



The idea of waking up to find to your horror that the world has accelerated into the future as you slept is one that has captivated generations. Rip Van Winkle, which tells the story of a man who wakes up from a twenty year sleep to find his friends and family dead and gone and his children grown, is one of the classical modern tales on the theme of time loss. In cinema, Wolfgang Becker's 2003 movie Goodbye Lenin features a devoted son trying to painstakingly recreate the East Germany that his mother knew before she fell into a coma in order to prevent her experiencing further distress. The hit cartoon series Futurama sees a hapless pizza delivery boy stumble into a cryogenic chamber in the 1990s and awaken in the 31st century, and follows him as he tries to get to grips with the time shift. Intriguing ideas for stories these may be, they also have meaning for scientists studying the process of aging and dementia in particular.




A world of time


Our relationship with the world around us is strongly dictated by temporality. This includes the cyclical events that we use to locate our everyday activities, and linear events. Examples of the former include birthdays, which come around time and time (and time!) again, and seasonal events such as Fall, Thanksgiving and Christmas. These occasions can quickly blur into one, with people forgetting how old their relatives are or what they got up to last Christmas. Forgetting these things is a natural part of life, and although people can experience something similar to mild vertigo when Fall comes round yet again, as humans who for thousands of years have lived in a world of seasons and ceremonies we are well conditioned to absorb the shock of suddenly feeling old and put our energy into getting on with life.

Linear time, however, can be a little more problematic. Strongly related to modern culture, linear time can be typified through objects. Several researchers have dedicated their efforts to understanding the human relationship with objects, and how the static nature of objects influences our experience of time passing. A computer bought in the year 2000 would have looked quite futuristic at the time, but in today's world, where technology design has changed so considerably, that thirteen-year-old computer looks archaic. That computer is locked into a certain moment of time and quickly becomes a historical artifact in day-to-day life. In the contemporary environment, where companies rush to develop new designs, objects, and ideas, it can leave people with a feeling that time is rushing forwards at a bewilderingly fast pace. For those suffering with dementia, this can overshadow the comfortable cyclical temporal rhythms of holiday festivals and birthdays can cause the world to become a frightening an alien place full of strange objects that have no meaning. For anyone who has experienced living with a loved one who has dementia, seeing someone develop a difficult relationship with the time and space around them will be more than familiar. Changes in routine and new objects are things that we tend to take for granted until the first time we have to care for someone whose temporal world is slowly falling apart. The loss of short term memory that is so characteristic of aging intensifies the experience of being lost in a time that has increasingly little meaning, so that the modern world with all its speed and rapid change is a far from ideal environment for many people with dementia.


Recreating the past


This concept is the guiding principle behind several recent projects that aim to place dementia sufferers in a purpose built time warp free from unsettling linear time. A major effort in Norway has embraced this like nowhere else. Dubbed 'Dementiaville', Norwegian researchers have released plans to build an entire 1950s village to house 150 residents. All of the accommodation will be kitted out in authentic 1950s styles, and in order to ensure that the careful illusion remains intact, the carers will be dressed as gardeners, shop assistants, and hairdressers. The aim is simple: to create a temporal environment that is mentally safe, and in so doing to reduce the anxiety, restlessness and aggression often experienced by dementia sufferers.


The idea is not a new one, and not everybody is convinced. A model for the Swiss 'mirror to the past' has already been attempted in Amsterdam, with the building of a so-called "Dementia Village". The village is said to have resulted in people who are "calm and content" as they tend to their front gardens, visit friends, go to the salon, and buy their groceries from 1950s shops. Christmas comes and Christmas goes, and nothing changes. Critics argue that people with dementia do not have a normality, and that it is therefore not possible to fake one. Supporters argue that this approach aims at creating a stress-free environment, not normality, and trials such as that in Switzerland and Holland continue to be supported by Alzheimer's associations across the world. As these major studies begin to produce measurable results, researchers wait in anticipation to see whether this time-traveling approach might be the answer to our aging population.


By Melissa Staunton

Webpage by Paul Susic  Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist (Health and Geriatric Psychologist)

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