French Alzheimer's village tries new approach for treating memory loss

In South West France there is a special village that looks like the outside world but is in essence a nursing home for those suffering from Alzheimer's. Rachel Townsend has this special report

As you walk into Village Landais in south-west France, you are struck by a sense of calm. There is little stress here.

There is also lots of laughter. There is music too, villagers can be seen dancing, inside classes and in the village square. But behind the smiles, there is sadness. Some realise what they have lost, others don’t.

What makes Village Landais unique is that everyone living here has Alzheimer’s. The oldest resident is 102, the youngest is 40.

Janine sits in her apartment with her daughter Bettina. Janine’s move here was a difficult one. The 76-year-old spent her working life caring for those with dementia. Now she has the disease. It took her three months to feel settled.

These days she often forgets that she’s no longer a carer and spends much of her time trying to look after her fellow villagers. It is incredibly touching to witness.

The eldest resident is 102 and the youngest is 40. Credit: ITV News

I ask Bettina if she has noticed any changes in her mother since she moved here.

"She was silent, all alone at home. She didn’t go out much. She was expecting her children and grandchildren. Today she has an extremely rich social life."

Janine follows the conversation and interrupts. Smiling, she says "I’m thriving."

"Exactly, she’s thriving."

Bettina and her mother turn to each other and share a beautiful smile.

Bettina Leduc tells Rachel Townsend her mother Janine "is thriving" and making friends after moving into Village Landais

Village Landais is an experiment to see if removing stress from those with Alzheimer’s can help slow the progression of the disease.

When you spend a couple of days here, you realise all is not what it seems. At first glance the supermarket looks like any other; then you notice they have no checkouts. Remembering to pay for goods can be a challenge for those with dementia. And so here, that pressure is removed.

In the village library, there is a wooden carriage. It is known as the "train to anywhere."

Psychologist Nathalie Bonnet holds sessions with residents in the train - there’s a film of a rural journey that plays on a loop.

"It’s about feeling the freedom," she explains.

ITV News Correspondent Rachel Townsend visited the village. Credit: ITV News

"There is a delay between the real life they live here and this memory of their life. It’s another place and this causes conflict that makes you want to leave. And the train offers this solution.

"When you are calm, you can maintain skills in everyday life and that’s our goal. The more peaceful they are, the more their usual competencies are retained."

Early indications show this approach could be working. The experiment is led by a team of researchers at Bordeaux University. Led by Professor Hélène Amieva, they visit Village Landais every six months to chat with residents and monitor the progression of the disease.

"Early results are quite promising," Professor Amieva tells me. "There is an improvement not only in the brain but also in behaviour."

Quite often, people with Alzheimer’s experience behavioural changes; but that isn’t typical here, something that has been documented by Professor Amieva and her team.

The village is designed around removing stress from the resident's lives. Credit: ITV News

“Acting on quality of life, on anxiety, on mental health, is a way to slow, at least modestly, the rate of cognitive decline.”

She acknowledges this approach doesn’t come cheap. The project costs around €7 million a year, largely funded by the French government.

Residents pay an annual fee of €28,000 (£24,200), compared with around €20,000 (£17,300) for a more conventional nursing home.

Professor Amieva concludes: “It is more costly. But if it is associated with a clear better quality of life of villagers, what do we want?”

It is a thought-provoking question. Perhaps with a different, more holistic approach, it is possible to life a good life with Alzheimer's disease.

  • Watch the full report on On Assignment on ITV 1 and ITVX at 10.45pm on Tuesday, May 30

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