Sunday, July 14

Running to recapture a beloved journey, before dementia takes everything

When I was little, my father, who rarely traveled, would tell stories about a trip to Europe he took with his parents at age 14, in 1966. He remembered how Nonie loved the pristine Swiss roads and flowerbeds; the cozy fireplace in the hillside house near Lugano, where her 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 newspaper for insulation. Occasionally, my father would show me his Kodachrome slides on a projector.

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

One form of immersive reminiscence therapy is a place called Town Square, a day care center for adults with dementia. I visited shortly after it opened in 2018. The facility, designed by the San Diego Opera, resembled a 1950s town with a restaurant, beauty salon, pet store, movie theater, gas station, and city 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 recalling her teenage years after seeing a portrait of Elvis. Georgi Gospodinov’s novel “Time Shelter,” about a psychiatrist who creates memory clinics that simulate past eras, notes, “There is no time machine except a human being.” Initially skeptical, I discovered that spontaneous reminiscences in a cheerful environment are a rare positive aspect of Alzheimer’s treatment.

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 hadn’t attended adult day care, perhaps reliving the journey of 1966 might bring him back to his youth. Selfishly, I also wanted to replace the painful memories of the past few years with happier ones for both of us. I had spent the last 16 months making endless phone calls to his doctors, banks, and lawyers, negotiating insurmountable discounts on interest. When he unwittingly 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 grouch or a “pencilhead” (a demanding, overzealous know-it-all, I think). Even when he told me to leave home in a huff, I knew he loved me unconditionally and would apologize soon. He trusted me, even when I doubted myself. He was my burden, never asking for anything in return or holding grudges, despite the mistakes his illness had caused. And yet, I wondered: why hadn’t he planned better, since he had seen his mother suffer and fought to support her?