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Design

Why a ‘Memory Town’ Is Coming to Your Local Strip Mall

Weeks after opening near San Diego, a model town for treating dementia is set to be replicated around the U.S.
The diner in Town Square, decorated with formica tables and portraits of Fifties screen stars like James Dean and Audrey Hepburn.
The diner in Town Square, decorated with formica tables and portraits of Fifties screen stars like James Dean and Audrey Hepburn.Senior Helpers

On August 13, a brand-new town in Southern California welcomed its first residents. They trickled through the doors of a generic beige warehouse on a light-industrial stretch of Main Street in Chula Vista, a San Diego suburb. Then they emerged in Town Square—a 9,000-square-foot working replica of a 1950s downtown, built and operated by the George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers. Unlike the businesses around it hawking restaurant supplies and tires, Town Square trades in an intangible good: memories.

The imitation town (which I wrote about previously in The Atlantic) is the biggest U.S. investment so far in what eldercare specialists call reminiscence therapy. In reminiscence therapy, caregivers encourage people with dementia and age-related cognitive impairments to talk about past events and their own life experiences, often aided by old photos, music, and other prompts that stimulate memories. Studies have shown that reminiscence therapy has positive effects on the mood, cognition, and communication level of dementia patients.