As modern medicine continues to advance, and technology allows for more accessibility, we are seeing our world’s population grow older. According to the World Economic Forum, one in every 11 people is 65 years old or older. In the next 30 years, it’s estimated that that number will grow to one in every six people. However, as lifespans expand, so do the risks associated with old age.
Today, approximately 44 million people worldwide live with Alzheimer’s disease, or a related form of dementia. This doesn’t even take into consideration that only one in every four people with the disease actually receive a diagnosis. Further, it is estimated that between one and four family members act as caregivers for each individual diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “In 2020, these caregivers provided an estimated 15.3 billion hours of [unpaid] care valued at nearly $257 billion.”
Although Alzheimer’s research continues to expand, it is clear that we need to be better prepared for the possibility of a growing dementia population. Luckily, there is a small, experimental village in France that is testing the boundaries of how independently people with Alzheimer’s can live, in the name of preserving the residents’ autonomy.
The Village Landais Alzheimer in the southwest of France is a gated community, home to 105 permanent residents, all of whom have Alzheimer’s disease. The village provides the care of a nursing home, but is designed to be as similar to the “outside world” as possible. The hope is that this will ease the transition of assisted living, and provide residents with ample opportunity to socialize and engage in varying activities.
Many people who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia are moved around, typically between caregivers and family members. During those early stages of diagnosis, consistency is key and many families are unable to provide that stability, especially in cases when the diagnosis was unexpected.
The residents at this village can enjoy all the typical aspects of their lives prior to their diagnosis, but in a safe and contained environment. They can shop for groceries at the small store around the corner, get pampered at the hair salon down the block, and even attend music recitals put on by other residents. “We don’t have a till,” explained Christine Surelle, one of the volunteers that works at the grocery store. “Our currency of exchange is smiles.”
Each resident pays almost 24,000 euros each year in fees, and all other costs are subsidized by the French government. This allows the residents to do “normal” things like pick up their groceries, without adding too many stressful factors. “It’s to maintain their sociability,” continued Surelle, “to maintain a contact with the old world they once knew, to ensure there is no brutal break with the past.”
Research so far supports that communal living and increased socialization can potentially improve the quality of life of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s, and subsequently ease their symptoms. Researchers from France’s National Institute of Health and Medical Research are keeping a close eye on the experimental village, in hopes of seeing whether or not this model of care can in fact change the trajectory of the disease, or if the benefits outweigh the costs.
Madeleine Elissalde, age 82, was one of the first residents to move into the village when it opened in June of 2020. She enjoys living near the countryside. “It’s like being at home,” she said. “We’re well looked after.” Elissalde’s granddaughter, Aurore, visits her grandmother at the village as often as she can. “Her memory loss is less severe,” Aurore explains. “She’s happy, she’s rediscovered her enjoyment of life.”
If you’d like to contribute to Alzheimer’s research and care, please consider this gift that gives more. Check out the video below to see more of this unique, French village!