What’s Behind the Memory Care Design That Has Captured the Internet

The turn-back-the-clock design of a Cleveland-area memory care community has gone viral this week, hitting the Reddit front page and then winning coverage on outlets including TODAY. But the community’s design efforts are only part of a larger goal for the operator.

Unsatisfied with the current memory care buildings on the market, the CEO of Ohio-based The Lantern Group set out with admittedly “lofty” goals to completely revamp the memory care experience and transform patient outcomes.

The resulting Lantern of Chagrin Valley assisted living and memory care community in South Russell, Ohio, resembles a town from circa the 1930s and 40s, and is sort of a “rehab for Alzheimer’s,” Lantern Group founder and CEO Jean Makesh told Senior Housing News.

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At the Lantern, Makesh doesn’t intend to cure Alzheimer’s disease; rather, he intends to perfect a way to care for and treat Alzhiemer’s patients that will enable them to function independently within five years, and allow them to live independently at home in the next 10 years.

“We cannot continue to just care for Alzheimer’s patients,” Makesh said. “We need to find a way to treat them.”

‘The only way’

When Makesh opened his first assisted living community in Madison, Ohio, some years ago, he felt confident his background in occupational therapy and his previous work in the skilled nursing industry had adequately prepared him for senior care. But when some of his residents started manifesting signs of dementia, he was “petrified.”

“I thought I knew a lot about being elderly in general, but when I started engaging with these residents on a one-on-one basis, I realized ‘oh my God, I have no clue,’” Makesh said.

These residents—one of whom routinely demanded breakfast at 7:30 p.m., and another who, at 92 years old, regularly told people she had to go home to see her mother—could no longer live in assisted living, Makesh said. He knew he’d either have to build memory care units, or the residents would have to transfer out of his building.

Frustrated by the memory care communities he encountered elsewhere—which he acknowledges are often beautiful and offer great care, but aren’t treatment environments—Makesh set out to create a new kind of memory care experience that focuses heavily on treating dementia, in addition to caring for the residents’ needs.

His most recent community—Lantern of Chagrin Valley—opened last month with 20 memory care units and 46 assisted living units, designed and arranged in a way to call to mind residents’ long-lost memories and stimulate the creation of new ones.

“I truly believe that that is the only way,” Makesh said.

Fountains, courtyards and neighbors

One of the most noteworthy features of the memory care wing at Lantern of Chagrin Valley is the fiberoptic ceiling that simulates the real sky, with the sun rising in the morning, clouds visible during the day and the sun setting at night.

Makesh hoped the sky would reset residents’ biological clocks, as well as bring the outside world to them, he said.

“We all feel great being outside,” Makesh said. “I wanted to bring the outside in.”

Along those lines, Makesh didn’t want any resident to feel as though they were residing in an institutional setting, or within the same four walls constantly. Consequently, the memory care wing features an “indoor courtyard,” complete with grass-colored carpet, working fountains and lampposts. The features are meant to remind residents, who came of age during the 1930s or 1940s, of their younger years—the years Alzhiemer’s patients are most likely to remember.

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The actual memory care apartments are located along the indoor courtyard, each designed to resemble a small home with a front porch.

“The building was designed in such a way that every single one of them can see their neighbor,” Makesh explained.

The Lantern of Chagrin Valley also uses music therapy and pumps aromas throughout the community to stimulate residents’ senses, Makesh said. His goal is to increase residents’ neural networks and eventually rehabilitate them to the point where they can live more independently.

“Ultimately, we would want to see the residents in memory care move back into assisted living,” Makesh said.

A treatment, but not a cure

Two residents have already moved in to the Lantern of Chagrin Valley, with six or seven more ready to make the move, Makesh said.

“We’re waiting for the Department of Health to come and certify us,” Makesh explained.

Despite his memory care vision having admittedly “lofty goals,” Makesh is optimistic that his concept of “Alzheimer’s rehab” will catch on and actually succeed in treating dementia patients. This is partly due to the fact that the model has been used successfully before, Makesh explained.

In day care, for example, young children are cared for and looked after, but also educated and prepared for their schooling years, Makesh said. The same combination of care, preparation and training can be used for Alzheimer’s patients in memory care communities, he reckoned.

“If the day care industry can do it, long-term care can do it,” Makesh said.

Alleviation of Alzheimer’s symptoms has been previously achieved, but to date, nothing has been proven to reverse or stop the progression of the disease. This remains an elusive goal.

Still, Makesh pointed out, treatments for other progressive neurological diseases like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis have come a long way in the past 25 years. “Now, individuals with those diseases can integrate back into the community,” he said.

That’s what Makesh is striving for with dementia—not a cure, but a treatment that enables continued independence.

“The disease will progress, there’s nothing I can do,” Makesh said. “But I can increase neural networks.”

Written by Mary Kate Nelson

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