Creative thinking for Alzheimer’s patients: the story of the fake bus stop

Think creativity doesn’t matter? That it has to be this complicated, moody artist kind of thing? That it doesn’t apply to you? That it can’t help the world?

At its heart, creativity is about solving problems. And if you have ever known someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, you know that one of the biggest problems that you can’t solve is their burning need and unspeakable desire to go home. If you ask her where home is, she can’t say. She doesn’t know where it is. She’ll get more agitated. She might even cuss you out or shove you, this mild-mannered woman who taught piano and loved ballroom dancing. It’s this insatiable desire that drives her to leave her apartment or assisted living facility and wander the streets, alone and confused, searching endlessly in vain, for that place, that idea, that feeling she knows is home.

I see it in the tired lines of my father’s face when the police found his wife wandering a busy street at 5am last year–he usually stayed awake all night to watch her, but this night, he was human. This night, he fell asleep.

So when I read about the simple, creative solution that the Benrath Senior Center in Germany came up with, I thought–no, wait, that’s too easy. Why didn’t someone think of this sooner? And how can we get this up and running in American nursing homes?

The Benrath staff discovered that when seniors tried to escape, they often ended up at public transportation stops. So they created a fake bus stop in front of the senior center. When the seniors wander away, they can be found there, waiting for the bus that will never come. This gives staff members time to find them and bring them back inside.

There is something about waiting for a train, plane or cab that is familiar enough that those folks remember it. No matter how jumbled up some of the signals in their brain may be, they remember that when they are waiting, they are on their way somewhere. And that’s just enough to keep them from wandering further.

Some may think this is an evil trick. But that’s what Alzheimer’s and dementia are: evil tricks that hijack the mind. Fight fire with fire, I say. Trying to reason with a senior who has dementia is like trying to explain the law of gravity to a two-year-old child. Now why would you want to do that? Isn’t it better instead to simply let the apple fall where it may? The child is delighted, scoops up the apple with chubby little hands and holds it up for you to see, little sparkling eyes filled with wonder and amazement. There are no words for that.

This is creativity at its finest. You pay attention to the little things. You watch how people behave, what they do and what they don’t, what they say and how they say it, where they go and how they get there. And then sometimes, if you are very quiet, that creative idea will find its way home with you.

To hear the whole story, listen to the podcast at RadioLab.

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2 thoughts on “Creative thinking for Alzheimer’s patients: the story of the fake bus stop

  1. What a wonderful idea. Speaking from the experience of watching my mom go through living with Alzheimer’s for 17 years, it is so true that she was always looking to go home. She too got lost one night, and a wonderful couple brought her home, but others have not been as fortunate. As this disease becomes more and more pervasive hopefully there will be many more creative ideas for dealing with it. There is no cure, and so it can only be managed. And for those currently living with a loved one with Alzheimer’s, my advice is to try to accept the place they are in and communicate with them in that place. Don’t try to make them remember things they can’t – it will only frustrate both of you. Once I was finally able to do this with my mom, a great weight was lifted and I was truly able to enjoy our time together more.

    1. Laura, thanks for sharing your experience. My father gets so upset because his wife is in the nursing home against his wishes and constantly says she wants to go home. He thinks she means their condo. When I remind him that she would say she wanted to go home when she was living with him too, he gets quiet, then says, yeah, you’re right. I hope he knows that she is really safer where she is than she could be at home with him anymore. I hope there will also be a creative solution for my dad and other relatives of people with Alzheimer’s or dementia. It’s good to know that it is possible to enjoy that time with your loved one instead of being frustrated by it.

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