Back to the Future
Taking patients to the past to propel them forward
Posted on September 30, 2017
“I have a gun. I’m going to stop this terrible disease.” The harrowing late night phone call to Dr. George Glenner was from a distraught husband who had reached a breaking point, struggling to care for a wife with dementia. George kept the man on the phone while his wife, Joy, called the sheriff’s department to trace the call, averting a possible murder-suicide. Fortunately, the couple got the help they desperately needed.
Joy, recalling the incident recently at her home in Rancho Santa Fe, said that call for help more than three decades ago was a turning point for them. “It’s time for us to start taking care of the living,” her husband told her. Dr. Glenner, a world-renowned physician and Alzheimer’s researcher at UCSD, had identified the beta-amyloid protein considered the hallmark of the debilitating disease that strips patients of their memory and dignity. His research up until then had been focused in the lab, where he founded a “brain bank” to decipher the disease’s pathology, but now his thoughts turned to home. The Glenners realized that the families of those with Alzheimer’s are victims, too. Not only robbed of their loved ones, families are also faced with providing care that takes a physical, emotional, and financial toll.
Within six months of that call, the couple co-founded the George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers, Inc., the first program in the nation to provide affordable adult day care and support services to families affected by Alzheimer’s and other forms of memory impairment. Services include family counseling and training, case management, crisis intervention, advocacy, and referrals. All centers have nurses on staff and a five-to-one ratio of participants to staff.
Now with three locations in San Diego (Hillcrest, Chula Vista, and Encinitas), the Glenner centers are celebrating their 35th anniversary on October 28 with “Back to the Future,” a fundraising gala at the Hilton San Diego Resort & Spa. Although Dr. Glenner died in 1995, Joy continued the couple’s work and now serves as the centers’ President Emeritus. She has also authored two books for caregivers.
Joy experienced firsthand the challenges caregivers confront when her own father retired early to care for her mother, who had suffered a stroke and couldn’t speak. The experience helped to prepare her for creating a support system for Alzheimer’s patients and their families. “This is the most rewarding work I have ever done,” she reflects. “I love these families. They are so happy not to face this all alone.”
She is excited about the centers’ latest project, a potentially groundbreaking day care program in the field of memory care. It’s called Town Square, and is a $600,000 “memory village” that is taking shape inside a Chula Vista industrial building. The project will offer an interactive day care program in a “simulated urban environment” designed to bring back positive, long-term memories of pivotal times in life.
The Glenner Center’s chief executive officer, Scott Tarde, came up with the idea. Tarde says independent research has shown that strongest memories are formed between the ages of 18 and 35, when life’s most significant events happen — high school, college, marriage, the birth of children. “If you can take those with Alzheimer’s back to the time period when memories are the strongest, the most hard-wired, you can trigger these past memories that are very powerful,” he says.
For Alzheimer’s patients at Glenner, whose average age is 82, that “prime time” was between 1953 and 1961. So, Town Square is designed with a San Diego ’50s theme, complete with a 1959 Ford Thunderbird, a diner, sports pub, pet store, library, department store, museum and movie theatre, even a miniature Balboa Park with benches and trees. Jukeboxes will play tunes from back in the day. “Put on Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra, and it’s like a switch being turned on,” Tarde says of Alzheimer’s patients. “They’re still in there. They deserve that quality [of life]. They deserve that dignity.”
Aides will guide groups of five participants at a time through neighborhoods filled with fully functioning storefronts for such structured activities as working crossword puzzles in the library or having lunch in the ’50s-style diner. Tarde says reminiscence therapy has been shown to reduce agitation, improve sleep quality, and enrich the lives of those with Alzheimer’s.
Tarde has formed a unique partnership with San Diego Opera’s general director, David Bennett, to design and build the memory village. Carpenters and other artisans, led by charge scenic artist Tim Wallace, are busily building sets and storefronts for the mini city in the San Diego Opera’s scenic shop in Barrio Logan. “Two nonprofits getting together to help the community has been a fantastic partnership,” says Tarde. Town Square is expected to open next spring.
The centers are also partnering with a developer, Village Holdings LLC, to replicate Town Square in 100 locations around the country in an ambitious plan to open three to five centers per year over the next two decades. “My passion is to bring this incredible organization and Town Square to as many cities across the world as I can,” says Tarde. “The real story is bringing affordable options for those with Alzheimer’s and their families.”
Indeed, the demand for affordable services is staggering. More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. By 2050, this number could rise as high as 16 million. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and will cost an estimated $259 billion for care this year, a number expected to increase to more than $1.1 trillion in 2050.
Joy, a true pioneer in the field of memory care, remains optimistic that solutions and services will be found. “We’ve created a whole new world for Alzheimer’s patients and support for their families that wasn’t there,” she says, looking back on the Glenner Centers’ 35-year history. “Everything is possible. That’s my motto.” 619.543.4700, glenner.org Andrea Naversen