Dementia therapy involves opening memories with objects, settings

DRESDEN, Germany — On a recent winter morning, Gertraude Bauer and Gerda Noack went shopping in communist East Germany.

“Here we have a lunchbox,” said Carmen Mesech, who appeared to be a sales assistant at the Intershop store, an upscale communist-era establishment where the women were examining merchandise.

“This used to be so popular,” Bauer responded with a smile.

“And the bread in it was always fresh,” added Noack, gazing into the distance.

The two 93-year-olds spent much of their lives in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Now, decades later, the vanished communist era appeared — at least for them — to be back. The Intershop store they were browsing in was, of course, a reproduction, and the song playing in the background, “Old Like a Tree,” had long ago disappeared from the radio.

Then a door opened and a nurse came in. It was time for the two Alzheimer’s patients’ daily nap and, for now, an end to their retro shopping tour.

Bauer and Noack, who live in a nursing home in this eastern German city, have suffered for years from Alzheimer’s, the degenerative disease that robs patients of their capacity to remember. For just a few minutes, however, they give the impression of having overcome their condition and regained control over their memories. To them, life in formerly communist East Germany, a country that merged with West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, is more vivid than experiences they may have had only minutes ago.

“People with dementia often still have a good long-term memory, whereas their short-term memory does not really work anymore. They may not remember relatives and family so well, but they can remember very well certain details from decades ago,” said Ursula Beer, a volunteer at the nursing home.

The Alexa nursing home where Noack and Bauer live is trying to trigger such memories by re-creating settings from the communist era as a form of therapy. While other nursing homes are also trying to help their residents remember details of their lives, what is going on here could well be the only concerted effort to re-create for its residents an entire historical era.

“At the beginning, we had no real idea how we could give (the residents) some of their vitality back,” said Gunter Wolfram, the nursing home’s 49-year-old director. “Dementia residents often have this challenge of being unable to structure their own lives and not really knowing what to do with themselves.”

One widely used form of therapy involves showing patients the old tools of their trade — for example, giving a former hairdresser combs, to reactivate memories. But that approach seems to work only if the patient was enthusiastic about his or her line of work; in East Germany, where one’s choice of professions was heavily regulated by the state, few were.

The response was much more striking when Wolfram bought a 1960s-era East German motor scooter more than two years ago to decorate his nursing home. “They remembered features of the scooter and told us stories about how they had gone on trips with their friends in the past,” he said of the patients.

He went on to buy other items commonly used in communist East Germany during the 1960s, including old radios, passports, hair dryers, even widely known ice cream advertisements. He displayed them in a dedicated “memory room” that also featured a small supermarket, a traditional living room and comfortable chairs.

Wolfram and his team of nurses soon noticed changes among patients who spent their days in an environment modeled after the Germany they had once known. They began to drink more water and eat more, and could suddenly go to the toilet again by themselves. “They showed abilities they did not show at all prior to that,” Wolfram said.

For the experiment to succeed, younger nurses also had to learn more about the GDR, so they could credibly appear as if they were living in an era they had never experienced. “I managed to learn a lot about East Germany from my older colleagues and, of course, through interacting with older people here,” said Mesech, 33, the nurse who was acting as an Intershop staffer when Noack and Bauer came by.

Beer, who is 64 and actually remembers that period, helps everyone out, sharing anecdotes about her first visit from behind the Iron Curtain. “I remember the first time I was allowed to travel to West Germany and I saw kiwi fruit there. And I thought: Why do they have such funny potatoes,” she recalled.

Some nurses also acknowledged drawing inspiration from the movie “Good Bye, Lenin!” which tells the story of a pro-communist mother who suffers a heart attack after her son is arrested for taking part in an anti-government protest. When she finally wakes up from a coma, the Berlin Wall has come down and her beloved communist country is collapsing. Her family decides to re-create East Germany for her and pretend as if nothing has changed, fearing she may suffer a fatal attack if she learns the truth.

Soon after the nursing home experiment was launched, Wolfram’s team expanded the initiative by another decade. A second room was refurbished based on architecture and everyday items common in the 1970s. In the nursing home’s entrance, visitors are now also welcomed by a painting depicting the Berlin Wall — the best-known symbol of communist East Germany’s failure as a state and its subsequent demise.

More than 100,000 East Germans tried to flee their country between 1961, when the wall was built, and 1989, when it came down in an almost bewilderingly peaceful revolt. At least 270 people died trying to cross the border into West Germany. East German soldiers were instructed to fire at any of their compatriots who attempted to escape the politically repressive and economically bankrupt system.

And yet, many former East Germans — born in a country that no longer exists — still have mainly positive memories of that era. They also remember a country in which women were equal counterparts of their male co-workers, receiving the same pay and having the same responsibilities, and in which unemployment was low. “Apart from the difficulties, there were also very pleasant memories, from the first love of the first moped and those little freedoms that you had,” Wolfram said.

He himself faced repression under the communist regime after his family requested a permit to leave the GDR legally. His personal unease about suggestions that he might be glorifying the GDR is on display just a few yards from the 1960s-themed memory room: The large room next door is set up as a Hollywood-themed cinema and includes a bookcase stocked with travel guides for places such as London, Scotland and Greece.

Most East Germans were both barred from watching Hollywood movies and from traveling to the West until 1989, and those places seemed unimaginably far away to them. Now, in the nursing home, Hollywood and East Germany are separated by just a thin wall. The plan is, in a few years, to also re-create the 1980s — the decade the Wall came down.

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