ALTOONA — Wrapping a doll in a blanket, a woman cradled the bundle in her arms, talking softly to the “baby.”
Holding her own doll, a second woman recounted stories Wednesday about her sons as infants as she sat at a kitchen table straight out of the 1950s.
“You never know what is going to spark a memory,” said Kelsey Schwellenbach, resident services supervisor at The Classic at Hillcrest Greens, a senior living community in Altoona that provides housing and services for independent living, assisted living and memory care.
For individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-related concerns, sensory cues involving sight, sound and touch of commonly used household items from their past can be used to rouse otherwise hard-to-reach memories.
The Classic has tapped into a form of reminiscence therapy by converting a former general activity room into a “vintage room” that emulates the time period of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
Reminiscence therapy is a treatment that uses the senses — touch, taste, sound, smell and sight — to help individuals with dementia remember events, people and places from their past lives.
Nearly 6 million people in the United States currently are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and that number is expected to increase as the baby boom generation continues to age.
“In many cases, recent memories deteriorate first for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia,” according to the Elder Care Alliance. “By sharing memories from the past through reminiscence therapy, people with dementia can develop more positive feelings while reducing stress and agitation.”
The new room, which opened last Friday, includes the kitchen table with a red tabletop and red upholstered chairs adjacent to a kitchen area featuring a Philco refrigerator and an Acorn gas stove, both from the ’40s, old-time utensils, a yellow wooden high chair and a sink with red-checked skirting that creates hidden storage below.
“One resident keeps looking under the sink,” said Dean Mathwig, The Classic’s community relations director. “Something was triggered there.”
On Wednesday, two of the 36 Memory Care residents sat at the table, where one of them held a doll wrapped in a yellow blanket and the other began talking about her children as babies as she paged through a September 1955 issue of Woman’s Day magazine.
“I had some shoes like this,” she said, pointing to a full-page Naturalizer ad. “I had some that pinched.”
As the woman continued to flip the pages, Schwellenbach asked her if she had ever made a version of one of the recipes featured in the magazine.
“Yes, and I made the boys eat it,” the woman said, chuckling.
Another section of the room is devoted to a children’s bedroom with a rocking chair, changing table, bassinet, buggy and wooden blocks. In a corner, a laundry-themed area has been created with a washboard, laundry basket and clothesline with baby clothes pinned to it.
An old Singer sewing machine sits on a wooden cabinet, and a basket of sewing patterns is nearby. A work bench includes a tool box and other tools, including wooden measuring tapes.
The vintage items were donated by residents’ family members or picked up at auctions and thrift sales, Schwellenbach said.
“Spending time in our interactive vintage room takes (residents) back to a place they are familiar with, and they can talk about their stories and share their experiences,” said Schwellenbach, noting a few residents snuck in before the room opened to hold dolls, play with the phone and sweep the floor.
Residents’ family members also have walked through the room with their loved ones. “I’ve heard them say, ‘Mom, remember you had a refrigerator like this?” Schwellenbach said. “It’s neat to see that interaction.”
Schwellenbach proposed creating the room to the director this past fall. To make sure the pieces in the room were of the right vintage, she had to do some research.
“It was interesting to look back and see what a refrigerator and stove might have looked like (in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s),” she said.