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Film about dementia village

An ALES graduate student hopes to convince government policymakers there are merits to a controversial style of housing for people with dementia, with a film she created as her thesis project.

“We’re becoming a lot more uncomfortable with traditional long-term care,” said Nicole Gaudet, a master’s student in Material Culture and Aging in the Department of Human Ecology. “Locking people up (in heavily supervised nursing homes) is being viewed as an inhumane way to care for our seniors.”

To research a viable alternative, Gaudet created Dementia Care By Design, a documentary made with her thesis supervisor, Megan Strickfaden, and Edmonton filmmaker Steven Hope.

It profiles De Hogeweyk, a 23-townhouse village development near Amsterdam, where people with mild to severe dementia can safely walk and bike streets, grocery shop, attend theatres and other social hubs, and even prepare their own meals. Their independence is possible because the 1.6-hectare site is actually a large-scale nursing home designed to look like a village, but with only one, secured, exit.

For five days last February, Gaudet, Strickfaden and Hope were the first researchers and filmmakers ever to gain liberal access to this world-renowned facility dubbed “Dementia Village.”

Since this was an ethnographic film project, they had no predetermined storyline. Instead, they recorded as many details as possible for a critical understanding of what works there and what doesn’t.

At De Hogeweyk, groups of six residents live together in one of seven different townhouse styles. Each is designed and furnished to reflect different lifestyles, including upper class, Indonesian and cultural.

Wandering the site unsupervised, the team shot footage from the moment residents awoke until bedtime, conducted nine interviews with staff and family, shot nearly 1,000 still photographs and recorded 60 pages of observations.

As they analyzed the data during the film’s edit, several themes emerged that appear to contribute to residents’ well-being. These included continuity, choice, reminiscence, multi-sensory stimulation, indoor-outdoor experiences and everyday activities occurring during the natural flow of time.

“What it seemed to indicate to us was that through curation of familiar, more home-like and normal environments, people with dementia can do better in terms of their overall quality of life,” said Gaudet “Overall, it was a relaxed, fun environment.”

As the vice-president of a family-owned firm that built and operates three supportive living facilities for seniors with dementia in Alberta, Gaudet hopes the film will open discussions about changing government policy, so that the De Hogeweyk model can come to Alberta.

Currently, “we are very risk averse,” she said. A seniors-care site in which dementia patients work with knives preparing their own meals, bike on streets, or even enjoy such potential hazards as easily accessible decorative fountains is likely not possible at the moment.

Other critics of the concept — which inspired a much-scaled down version that opened in Penetanguishene, Ont. this past spring — say it is deceitful, undermining patients’ trust and whatever connection they still have to reality.

Gaudet believes it’s important to have more discussion of the pros and cons. And soon, too, because it’s projected that the number of dementia patients in Canada will triple in the next 15 years.

Dementia Care By Design will be screened Saturday, October 24 at the Canadian Association on Gerontology’s annual conference in Calgary, and November 3 at the Faculty Club of the University of Alberta, during the Alberta Association on Gerontology’s Edmonton networking dinner.