Tag Archives: Alzheimer’s disease

The time-warp room and other medical breakthroughs

Alzheimer’s disease or senile dementia is a disease of the brain that causes memory loss and eventually the destruction of the social self.
We don’t now the origins of this disease but we assume that it is caused by an external agent (aluminium?) or an internal condition (amyloid beta deposits?).
Perhaps we should also entertain a cultural cause.
Coombe End Court, a retirement center in Marlborough, Wiltshire has a "time-warp" room. It’s outfitted with a gramophone, manual typewriters, a telephone made of Bakelite, and furniture from the 1950s.  
That this "reminiscence room" is loved by residents is not surprising.  Who doesn’t like to see the return of an "old friend" from the object world?  What captured the attention of the gerontological community (and the magnificent website Retronaut) was that this room as lead to a "dramatic" drop in the need for the anti-psychotic drugs given those who suffer from Alzheimer’s.  Or as my friend Leora Kornfeld puts it, "parquet floors and rotary dial phones appear to accomplish what neuroleptic drugs can’t."  
And I fell to wondering whether these things improve the condition because it is their absence that, in some small way, helps create the condition.  
My argument: perhaps the object world of consumer goods and material culture serves us as an anchor or an orientation. Perhaps we are reaching something like the limit of the human capacity to endure change. Perhaps the constant reformation of the material world has the effect of unmooring us. 
The people who live at Coombe End Court are close to being the first generation of the species to be shot from the cannon of structural change.  Certainly Western societies have seen astonishing change take place over the last 400 years.  But I think this change was (or at least felt) the exception, and stasis was the rule.  Our world might be turned upside down by a religious reformation, a political revolution, or a technological transformation, but there was some hope that things would eventually "return to normal."
This condition, let’s call it the "this too shall pass" condition, said that we could hope for change to pass and some normal, if only a new normal, to emerge.  The people who live a Coombe End Court began their lives with this condition in place…and lived to see the condition rescinded. 
One of the symptoms of structural change is the constant reformation of the material worlds. My favorite example of this is the Razr phone that rose to prominence in the 1990s.  It was once the apple of my eye.  It is now faintly ludicrous.  That took roughly 10 years. Remember Friendster?  Neither do I.  The material and the virtual world churns with novelty.  I write this from a hotel room in Rochester.  It’s not a high end place, but all of the design decisions represented in my room will be rethought and replaced in a couple of years.  I am wearing Levi’s and a Polo shirt.  These are American standards, I guess.  But every time I go to a conference in Soho, I am reminded of how far my fashion "sense" has falled from currency, and how close I am now to self ridicule.  
If I lived at Coombe End Court, if I were 75, say, I might well feel like someone who had fallen into a swift running Heracletian (sp) current and was now being pulled out to an unfamiliar sea.  The world that defined me recedes from view.  Increasingly, I am obliged to live in a world I don’t much recognize.  
I am not saying that this cultural condition causes Alzheimer’s disease.  But it is not hard to see how it might set the stage.  After all, there is no formal reason why a time-warp room should have therapeutic effect. Why isn’t it as unrecognizable as the rest of the world?  But this room "rewinds" time and returns us to a material culture that has not been defamiliarized by new fashions, technology, social practices, and ideas.  Oh, to see that Bakelite phone again.  Suddenly I am no longer accelerating out of the world.  To use Cliff Wild’s metaphor, my rights of residency are now respected. 
Don’t get me wrong.  This is no "world we have lost" nostalgia.  I was born a modernist.  As far as I’m concerned, the future can’t get here soon enough.  Part of me says, "the present was great, but let’s see what else you got."  The issue here is not slowing the rate of change, or somehow removing ourselves from the torrent of change.  It’s to think of ways to redesign the self so that it is less vulnerable to the effects of change.  


Wild, Chris. 2010.  Retronautic Rest Home. How to be a Retronaut: if the past is a foreign country, this is your passport. December 1, 2010. click here.


To Leora Kornfeld.