Freedom, dignity in French Alzheimer’s ‘village’

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Freedom, dignity in French Alzheimer's 'village'

Photo credit: Pixabay / CC0 Public Domain

The small village, like most in France, has a café-restaurant, a hairdresser, a superette and a library.

The neighbors have a cup of coffee and chat on the terrace or meet in the park or at the gym before heading home.

But these are no ordinary villagers. Their average age is 79 years and they all have a debilitating disease: Alzheimer's.

Opened in June in the southwestern spa town of Dax, Village Landais Alzheimer – named after the Landes department in which it is located – is home to 120 people suffering from the cruel, memory-draining disease for which there is no cure.

Medical attendants and volunteers – a total of 240 people – are available for each resident to provide help with daily tasks that some people can no longer do on their own.

But this is not a nursing home. The employees do not wear white coats and the residents are free to pursue their individual lifestyle as far as possible.

"Each resident has their own room and lives to their own rhythm. The one who gets up at 6:00 am does not disturb the rest of the person they like to sleep in," Aurelie Bouscary, a community assistant, told AFP.

Just over an hour by train from Bordeaux and three and a half hours from Paris, the village has a long waiting list of potential customers.

Challenging perceptions

Inspired by a similar project in the Netherlands, the process in Dax is being closely monitored by public health experts in Japan and Italy – countries with similarly aging populations looking for new, more humane and more frail models of care.

An important goal of the village is to enable the residents to maintain a close relationship with their loved ones and not to be cut off from the world.

It is intended to enable "daily interaction between the village and the outside world," says the institution's website.

"Indeed, the Landes project also wants to change the perception of Alzheimer's disease in society. Raising awareness of the behavior caused by this type of dementia will help to change the perception."

Ten of the 120 places are reserved for people with dementia under the age of 60, the youngest resident is 40 years old.

Alzheimer's mainly affects older people – around one in four people over the age of 85 suffers from it.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 10 million people develop dementia every year, with about two-thirds of the cases being due to Alzheimer's disease.

Thanks to medical advances in other areas, the numbers have increased as lifespan has increased.

Symptoms usually develop from forgetfulness and absent-mindedness to severe memory loss and almost complete dependency when the affected person no longer knows the time and place and depression occurs frequently.

Towards the end, people may even forget how to eat.

Getting motivation back

The Landes-Dorf consists of four "districts" with four houses each, each with about eight people living in them.

Residents are not allowed to leave the five-acre property, but they can get unrestricted visits and have access to quiet walking trails, a pond, and a park with swings – a popular attraction.

The donkeys Junon and Janine add a touch of landscape to the quiet, green community.

Residents can share their meals in a common dining area and are busy helping with tasks like setting the table – a member of staff is always on hand to keep an unobtrusive eye.

"The job is still maintaining," said Bouscary. "But it's completely different" than existing models. "I feel like I'm doing my job better."

The village opened just weeks after France left two months of imprisonment in coronavirus, a period of forced relatives separation that hit people in nursing homes particularly hard.

"Since arriving in June, they have been able to relax and regain a peaceful freedom," said Nathalie Bonnet, a community psychologist.

"They have regained their motivation and are resuming their daily activities. Since there is always someone available to deal with anxiety or depression, they calm down faster. As a result, antidepressant prescriptions can be reduced," she added.

The coronavirus epidemic has limited external contact for the time being, but eventually residents of the surrounding cities will be welcomed to attend concerts, attend village festivals or even have their hair cut in the salon.

The center cost around 28 million euros (US $ 33 million) in government funding to build the center with annual operating costs of 6.7 million euros.

Government authorities cover the occupancy costs of 65 euros per inhabitant per day.

Melany Fournier shared a meal with her aunt in the village restaurant.

"I was a little worried," said she, who had come to visit from Switzerland. "But to see her so calm and free to make her own decisions … She is at home and calls it 'The Village'."

The Dutch village was evacuated as a precaution because of the devastating smoke

© 2020 AFP

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