The Bus Stop: A New Approach to Elder Care

If you’ve ever had a loved one who suffered from Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, you know what it’s like to watch someone you care about slowly lose touch with reality. They forget family members’ names. They forget that you’re visiting and ask what you’re doing in their house. Worse yet, they wander off, lost in some memory.

When my grandmother got sick, my grandpa was a saint. He took care of her for years and never complained. In her more lucid moments, my grandmother would say, “I hate doing this to you. Maybe I should go to a nursing home.” He would adamantly refuse. “You’re never going to one of those places,” he’d say.

There are some decent homes, yes. But there are also some very bad ones. Even the best staff struggles with responding to patients with dementia. Trying to convince them that the reality they believe to be true is not proves futile. It isn’t uncommon for patients to insist that they have to leave the hospital because they believe someone they used to know needs them, or because there’s somewhere they have to be–work, for example. Therein lies the dilemma. You can’t argue with them, but you can’t let them go either. So what do you do?

Benrath Senior Centre in Dusseldorf, Germany may have found a solution. Franz-Josef Goebel, a member of the advisory board, came up with an idea that’s unbelievably simple, unorthodox, and oh so controversial. He proposed that they build a bus stop outside the hospital doors. It should look like every other bus stop in the city, except for one thing: the bus will never come.

Their theory is based on the fact that the first place most wanderers go is the nearest bus stop. So when a delusional patient insists on leaving the home because he or she has somewhere to be or something to do, they let them go. They let them walk out the door. After a while, a staff member goes to the bus stop and retrieves the patient. By this point, they say, the urge to leave has usually passed, and the patient agrees to come inside.

Despite the fact that it seems to be working, some people have called the system cruel and unfair, saying that the nursing home is “tricking” the patients. But that’s not their intention at all. They simply figure: why not permit patients to live in their reality rather than trying and failing to extract them from it? Walking out the front door and waiting for the bus allows them to feel like normal people, if only for a moment, and the staff gets to keep an eye on them the whole time. I’d call that a win.

Hear the full story here.

–Mo Hickey