Rushing to resume a beloved journey, before dementia takes everything

Connected media – Associated media

When I was young, my father, who rarely traveled, shared stories about a European trip he took with his parents at 14, back in 1966. He recalled how Nonie adored the pristine Swiss streets and flower-filled window boxes; the cozy fireplace in the hillside house near Lugano, where his father was born, with its clever alcoves for drying clothes or warming bread; and the palpable poverty in the house in Pozzuoli, near Naples, where Nonie’s aunt lined the walls with newspapers for insulation. Occasionally, my father would show me his Kodachrome slides on a projector.

As an adult, I often suggested we should repeat the trip, or at least visit Switzerland and Italy, so he could show me his family’s origins. But as his Alzheimer’s progressed, this idea took on new urgency. I hoped that revisiting the past might help him live better in the present. A few years ago, I learned about reminiscence therapy, a palliative treatment for memory disorders that involves triggering strong memories formed between ages 10 and 30, during the “memory rebound moment” when personal and generational identity take shape. Reminiscence therapy can involve group discussions, one-on-one sessions, collaborative storytelling, or simply conversations with friends. The goal is to comfort, engage, and strengthen connections between patients and caregivers.

One immersive form of reminiscence therapy is a place called Town Square, an adult daycare for dementia sufferers. I visited it shortly after it opened in 2018. The facility, designed by San Diego Opera, resembled a 1950s town with a diner, beauty salon, pet shop, movie theater, gas station, and town hall. By recreating the era of participants’ strongest memories, Town Square aimed to improve their quality of life. The decor sparked conversations, like a woman reminiscing about her teen years upon seeing a portrait of Elvis. Georgi Gospodinov’s novel “Time Shelter,” about a psychiatrist creating memory clinics simulating past eras, notes, “There is no time machine except the human being.” Initially skeptical, I found the spontaneous reminiscences in a cheerful setting to be a rare positive aspect of Alzheimer’s care.

I wanted this for my father, to bring him joy now that he had closed his store, which had been his world. Even if he wouldn’t attend adult daycare, perhaps retracing the 1966 trip could bring him back to his youth. Selfishly, I also wanted to replace the painful memories of recent years with happier ones for both of us. I had spent the last 16 months on endless calls to his doctors, banks, and lawyers, negotiating insurmountable interest discounts. When he unintentionally thwarted my efforts with small payments or denied his illness, I would snap, but he never held it against me. He always swore he would do better. Sometimes he called me a nag or a “pencil neck” (a demanding, overzealous know-it-all, I think). Even when he told me to leave the house in anger, I knew he loved me unconditionally and would soon apologize. He trusted me, even when I doubted myself. He was my ballast, never asking for anything in return or holding grudges, despite the mistakes caused by his illness. And yet, I wondered: why hadn’t he planned better, given he had seen his mother suffer and had fought to support her?

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