“Reality” Ageism

“Reality” Ageism

Warning: this is about nothing relevant—except reality. Poor reality, it’s so threatened these days. Now, I am devoted to imagination and, as you may have gathered, quite a fan of the surreal and the supra real, though I’m not always sure what that last is. But I feel so bad for plain, poor reality. After the Age of Enlightenment, it seemed that human beings had promised reality a better future. And in our modern, rational society, many of us thought we had finally reached the point where reality was dismissed only by folks certain that a bearded old white guy on a gold throne in the clouds was their salvation, or else that drinking Kool-Aid would hasten a comet coming to bring them to another planet. 

Alas, no. For us to have thought that was, well, unrealistic.

There is a new so-called therapy gaining great popularity for use with people who have Alzheimer’s or other forms of age-related dementia. It’s either an ingenious, compassionate idea (which is how it’s being marketed) or it’s the most manipulative, cynical, misleading concept since the Nazis posted the phrase Arbeit Mach Frei—Work Sets You Free—over the entrance gates of the extermination camp Auschwitz, to delude incoming prisoners into thinking it was a work camp and to stave off any rebellion.

Picture this. A group of people is ushered through the massive doors of a warehouse in a San Diego suburb. They emerge into a place called Town Square, a 9,000 square foot working replica of a 1950s small town center, built and operated by the George C.  Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers. The design is intended to evoke the years from 1953 to 1961, when most people now in their 70s and 80s were in their adolescence and early 20s. Glenner Family Centers plans to update the memorabilia to fit the population as new generations age. The current Town Square has rotary phones, a parked 1959 Ford Thunderbird, a classic jukebox, portraits of movie stars, and vintage books and magazines. These are scattered among 14 different storefronts, including a diner, a movie theater, a pet store, a park-like square, even a city hall. The group is ushered around and told that all this is real and perfect and safe. They usually visit five or six storefronts a day and perform tailored activities in each one. Storytellers entertain them in the library, they play with small live animals in the pet store, and the old men gravitate toward the sports pub where they can shoot pool. Town Squares reflect the “good old days”: very white in population, middle class in style, preferentially male in entertainments, and with the assumption of heterosexuality in all relationships. 

Dozens of these fake memory towns are already sprouting around the United States, with more planned as franchises in the coming years. The 65 and older population in the suburbs has increased 39 percent since the year 2000 and will likely continue growing. Memory towns claim to be a form of adult care in cheerful, interactive settings. Part of the sales pitch is that family members can feel guiltless and good about stashing their loved ones there. That extra reassurance comes at a price: $95 a day, while the average rate for adult care centers is $61. In order to build hundreds of Town Squares across the US, Glenner is partnering with the home health care giant Senior Helpers, which employs 25,000 caregivers around the country.

In case you’re not squirmingly uncomfortable already, get this: “reminiscence therapy,” as it’s being called, has been tried on older people who don’t have dementia, with some evidence of mood improvement. We don’t know what “some evidence” or “mood improvement” means in this context (maybe they simply looked at the world around them and got depressed?), but we do know that Glenner Centers’ CEO Peter Ross hopes to bring it to a larger market: “Any senior looking for an interactive program to make their day” might be at home in one of the future fake towns, he said in an interview with The Atlantic. He likens Town Square to Disneyland for the elderly.

Full circle of words distorted to mean their exact opposite: “reality TV,” “reality president,” “reality dementia.”

This is a uniquely American commercialization of nostalgia that raises more questions than I have space, time, and stomach to engage. Do people respond to these places because they remind them of their youth, or does their form matter, too? What if they didn’t grow up in a small town, or did but ran away to a city as soon as they could escape? For a hefty sum, families of people with cognitive disabilities get time off from caregiving— and god knows they probably deserve it—if they can afford it. What if they can’t? And what about the travelers down memory lane themselves? What if they’re black or Asian or Hispanic or lesbigay Americans caught in this white-bread nightmare? Moreover, with many forms of dementia, even white, straight males tend to float in and out of cognition.  What happens if you surface into reality to find yourself smack in the 1950s, as if you’d wandered into the movie “Back to the Future?” What happens when you glimpse that everything you were just participating in was fake, as in another film, the subtle horror pic, “The Truman Show”? Do such realizations so shock you that they send you permanently over the edge? 

They certainly would do that to me. But then to me, who partly grew up in a small town and have no great nostalgic affection for them (a subject for another time); for me, who detested every moment of the suffocating, segregated, McCarthyite, duck-and-cover under your school desk to be safe from the atomic bomb 1950s—for me, finding myself in Nostalgiaville would be to discover that I believe in hell after all, because I’m in it.

There are many ethical questions swarming around this new industry. Is it government licensed and regulated? OMG, that’s scary. Is it not government licensed and regulated? OMG, that’s scarier.  This commodification of delusion, which claims to address the needs of old people and others with cognitive difficulties compassionately, positions itself as fresh and innovative.  Yet architects have already devised friendly, government-funded, civilized city areas with walkability, accessibility, plenty of outdoor space and good transit, and opportunities for social connection—and surprise!—these are mostly, as usual, in the Scandinavian countries. On the other hand, privately owned, commercialized “Disneylands for older people” seems somehow uniquely American.

I know there must be others of you out there like me who would prefer to know the truth, whatever that is; who would rather look reality in its thousand glittering eyes than be lulled to a slow death-in-life by fakery. I know there are many of you out there who would prefer not to, and perhaps such towns are a palliative, maybe even a blessing, for such people: after all, there are folks for whom Trump still can lie no wrong.

But the fact that this is a growing industry with a huge commercial future being hyped as the ageist, sexist, racist answer to “Pssst, where in hell do we put old people?”—now that  should alarm every one of us.