‘Dementia village:’ 5 things I learned

Editor’s Note: Watch “World’s Untold Stories: Dementia village” on CNN International on Friday July 12 at 11.30 ET, Saturday 9 a.m. ET and 4.30 p.m. ET, and Sunday at 5.30 a.m. and 11.30 p.m.

Story highlights

Gupta: 'Dementia village' is one of the most humane things I've seen

Keeping up appearances helps residents cope

Music and hand holding keep residents comforted, calm

A safe environment is key

Weesp, Netherlands CNN  — 

Earlier this year, I traveled to the Netherlands to report on a place that had captured my imagination. It is an entire village, where every single resident has severe dementia. Crippled by the prospect of putting their own parents into extended care facilities, two Dutch nurses decided to conduct an experiment: build a village for people with dementia and introduce a new level of humanity to the last few years of their lives.

The result is a cutting-edge medical village, called Hogewey. It’s the only place of its kind, on its scale, anywhere in the world. All of the residents have dementia. Everyone else, however, from the barber at the local salon to the chefs in the restaurants carry out their regular jobs in addition to being trained as specialized health workers. I have never seen anything like it in the world.

The media are rarely allowed inside, in an effort to minimize the disruption of the residents’ daily lives, but we were granted access in late March.

We don’t talk about dementia nearly enough as a society, and I know it can be uncomfortable to imagine yourself or a loved one in that position. But these conversations do need to happen, more than ever. When you consider the developed world, the number of people living with dementia is expected to double by 2030 and triple by 2050.

As things stand now, people with dementia are largely ignored. They live in non-descript buildings and anonymous wards with lots of white coats, non-stop blaring television, and superfluous sedation.

But what if more of those wards could look like the picturesque village of Hogewey? An entire village dedicated to caring for people with dementia. Here are 5 things I learned on the inside.

1. Safety first!

Six of out 10 people with Alzheimer’s disease will wander and become lost, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Fortunately, at Hogewey, getting lost isn’t a concern. There’s only one way in and one way out of the village – and that doorway is kept staffed and locked 24 hours a day.

Yvonne van Amerongen, one of Hogewey’s founders, told me even the residents who make it to this door aren’t necessarily trying to leave. Like many people with dementia, they simply see a doorway and want to walk through it. Most of the time, all a staff member has to do is suggest to the resident that the door is broken, and perhaps they should try another. I witnessed with my own eyes as residents simply turned themselves around and walk back in the other direction.

To that end, there are other safety modifications in place. An elevator – something you or I can operate without much thought – might prove perplexing to someone who suffers from severe dementia. At Hogewey, when a resident walks up to the elevator, a motion sensor summons the elevator, opens the door, and automatically takes the resident to the other floor when they step inside and trigger a weight sensor.

2. Music makes the world go round

It’s been shown in study after study: music is processed differently in the brain than many other sounds. The words and lyrics are activated on the left side of the brain in the language areas, while the tune and melody are more right brained. Long after patients with dementia lose the ability to carry out a conversation, they can still nod their heads, clap their hands, and stamp their feet. I even saw one very quiet man, Ben Picavet, suddenly start singing along to some traditional Dutch music while his wife, Ada, played the piano.

“We can’t talk anymore about everything, but with singing… you can make a good concert together,” Ada said. “For me, that’s very important.”