XPLORE is a personal journey in the pursuit of growth and exploration, and my recent journey to Europe allowed me to live and connect to both. The Sound of Memory project was to further explore the value of memory and the power for Alzheimer's patients to remember. In preparation of the research, I started with a few readings on the disease to better understand how to speak to patients by knowing what questions to ask and how to respond. More importantly, I wanted to understand how to develop a relationship with Alzheimer’s patients through music. Music and memory have been proven to share an intimately strong connection in the human brain. For those who suffer Alzheimer’s (or Dementia), music could potentially be a catalyst for remembering the past and curing a deteriorating mind. 

Finding My Rhythm in the Netherlands

Ruhnau Clarke Architects has given me the opportunity to further carry this research across seas to Weesp, Netherlands, a small beautiful town that houses the only Dementia Village in the world. It is a gated village designed for Dementia patients to live in a safe environment while being more active and feeling more independent. This setting is oftentimes compared to that depicted in the film ‘The Truman Show’ where residents can shop, dine and essentially live a day-to-day routine without fully knowing that they are under close watch of professional caregivers whose roles are as casual as being a cashier at the grocery store, mailman at the post office, or hairdresser at the salon. 

About the Choir
There are 152 elderly patients residing in this village along with 6 students: 2 interns and 4 graduates. During my stay at the facility, I was able to interview 12 residents, all of which suffered between Stages 1-4 of Alzheimer’s/Dementia. There were some challenges along the way like the language barrier and sudden changes in behavior and frustrations, but these only made the more positive moments we shared even sweeter! 

A Familiar Tune
The usual routine was to start off every session with a Franz Bauer song, a Dutch singer from the late 80’s. Everyone knew him and everyone loved his songs! From there, each resident would naturally request other songs. Some would start tapping their fingers, smiling, bobbing their head and even singing along! A couple of residents would start sharing memories like how he used to race horses or how she used to be in a choir. 

Picking Up the Tempo in Switzerland

After a full week with the humble and welcoming people of The Netherlands, I arrived to Switzerland and visited The Home of Sonnweid in the town of Wetzikon just outside of Zurich. Similar to the care facility of Hogeweyk in the Netherlands, Sonneweid specializes in caring for 155 Alzheimer’s patients. However, architecturally their living environment resembles more of the “norm”: a box building with rooms that opened to a shared corridor and very little access to the outdoors. There were challenges to be faced here including a significantly shorter stay. I also learned that some of the staff were actually not in support of the concept behind ‘Dementia Village’ of the Netherlands. They believe that it is important for the patients to live in ‘the real world’ rather than building a ‘village’ in which the residents believe is ‘real’ when it is ‘fake’. The concept was definitely seen from a different perspective and understood as quite a controversial matter to them. 

Harmonizing Back Home

All in all, through music, the people and their land, this XPLORE experience was at a level beyond my comprehension even days after arriving back home. I’ve come back enlightened and inspired to continue the Sound of Memory in the States. Since this past February (prior to my trip), I have been working closely with the Alzheimer’s Association in Riverside to become a Support Group Facilitator for Alzheimer’s patients in our region. Initially this was meant to prepare for my trip, but overtime it has become something I am getting more and more involved in. Extensive training is required as part of this process and my training continues today. During my training, I am honored to visit a number of facilities here in Southern California, including ones located in Canyon Crest, Redlands and San Diego. 

Thank you Ruhnau Clarke for giving me the opportunity to travel from the lowest valleys to the highest mountains in search of past memories while making new ones to share with friends and family back home.

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About the Author

Jennifer Nguyen is originally from Olive Branch, Mississippi and earned her Bachelor of Architecture from University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She currently works as a Designer II for Ruhnau Clarke Architects in Riverside, California.