These Town Squares Bring Elderly Right Back to 1950s America

We mostly report on what our cities may have in store for future generations. But what about older generations of urban residents? A California-based nonprofit has explored the needs of urban elderly in relation to the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. Their treatment will now also include 1950s American town squares.

These highly recognizable city centers feature everything you’d expect from a classic 1950s American town square: a diner with jukebox, a cinema, a petrol station, and a classic barbershop. Elderly can engage in activities such as bingo at the diner, a manicure in the Silver Fox hair salon, and polishing the 1959 Ford Thunderbird. All of these elements will remind them of the time when they were young.

The town squares have been designed, based on towns squares from the 1953-1961 era, when most of today’s Alzheimer patients would have collected their strongest memories. Over time, then, the squares will have to be altered in order to mirror scenes from the 1970s, 1980s and so on, to cater to new patients. Rather than wandering around on their own to reminisce, participants are visiting the several ‘shopfronts’ in groups of five for specific activities of about 45 minutes.

The initiative was developed by George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Care Centers, a nonprofit that runs adult day care centers to support patients and their caregivers. An essential element in their method is reminiscence therapy, a popular approach in dementia care. Patients and caregivers discuss past activities and experiences to bring back memories, usually with the aid of tangible prompts such as photographs, familiar items from the past, music and archive sound recordings. Reminiscence therapy is said to improve patients’ mood, sleep, and overall quality of life. Following up on the success of this type of therapy, the Glenner organization developed the town square, resembling small-town America from the 1950s and 1960s. The first was opened in San Diego suburb Chula Vista, a second location is due to be opened in Baltimore in early 2019, and more locations are expected to follow.

The scale and indoor setup of the town squares looks like the faux facades in the retail area of theme parks that are part of the experience economy, only this time, it is tailored to seniors instead of kids. Nevertheless, the big difference here is not so much the target group: it is that the town square’s trade is focused on reviving memories rather than consumption. And, their potential goes beyond Alzheimer treatment. As Richard Florida’s CityLab notes, the town square concept could be used to transform abandoned suburban shopping malls. The original town square is located in a generic warehouse, but the one in Baltimore is set to open in a former Rite Aid store in one of the city’s graying suburbs.

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