Work has begun on France’s first "Alzheimer's village” where patients will be given free rein without medication in a purpose-built medieval-style citadel designed to increase their freedom and reduce anxiety.
Residents of the village in Dax, southwestern France, will be able to shop in a small supermarket, go to the hairdressers, local brasserie, library, gym and even a little farm.
They will live in small shared houses designed to reflect their personal tastes and in four districts reminiscent of the southwestern French region between forests and the seashore.
While it may sound similar to a typical residential complex, the inhabitants are all men and women suffering from Alzheimer’s, the commonest cause of dementia. It is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.
Allowing them to live in an almost normal village helps “maintain (patients’) participation in social life,” said professor Jean-François Dartigues, neurologist at the Pellegrin university hospital in Bordeaux.
“The brain is the organ of human relations par excellence," he said.
The village is the brainchild of the late Henri Emmanuelli, a former Socialist minister and local MP who launched the project after reading about a Dutch gated model village in Weesp, Netherlands, seen as a pioneering care facility for elderly people with dementia.
Residents are confined to the village for their own safety but are allowed to move around freely inside and are watched over by plain-clothed medical staff. The staff don't treat patients, they care for residents, they say.
Some have described the set-up as reminiscent of The Truman Show, the film in which Jim Carrey plays a man living in a fake town that unbeknownst to him is a vast reality TV set.
Its proponents say that compared to traditional nursing homes, residents are more active, require less medication, and are quite simply happier.
The French version will seek scientific proof that this is the case, as young researchers will “cohabit” with the 120 residents with Alzheimer’s, along with 100 live-in carers and 120 volunteers who will stage activities.
The researchers will conduct a comparative study with traditional nursing homes and examine “the impact of new therapeutic approaches on patients, carers and medical staff,” Prof Dartigues told Le Monde.
Rather than opting for modern architecture, the village has been designed to look like the traditional historic centre of a medieval “bastide”, or fortified town, commonplace in the Landes area, so that patients don’t feel disorientated.
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Architect Nathalie Grégoire said that secure walkways within a vast green area and "a lack of enclosures” maintained a semblance of social life while making it easy to care for the residents. Everything will be architecturally conceived to boost patients’ ease of walking, sense of direction, visual bearings and memory.
“We hope that the patients will be less constrained and anxious, happier. The same goes for the medical staff,” said Françoise Diris, president of the France Alzheimer Landes association. “Families will also be more relaxed, and feel less guilty,” she added.
Largely funded by the region, the €29 million village will cost around €7 million to run. It will only cost patients €66 per day, roughly the same as the rate for a traditional nursing home in France.
According to Le Monde, if the experimental village proves a success, it could lead to many more in France - home to around a million Alzheimer’s sufferers with the disease progressing by as many as 150,000 new cases every year.