The Dutch Seem to Do Things the Right Way

My wife, youngest son, and I spent a wonderful weekend in Amsterdam this past winter as part of our three-month stay in Europe. I wrote about the experience, which was one of the highlights of our time in Europe.

One of the things I I liked about Amsterdam, and the Netherlands in general, was its progressive attitude on many issues. Its policies on recreational drugs, prostitution, same-sex marriage and euthanasia, are among the most liberal in the world.

“The Dutch have a deeply ingrained pragmatism when it comes to regulating law and order,” said René van Swaaningen, professor of criminology at Erasmus School of Law in Rotterdam, noting the country’s relatively liberal approach to “soft” drugs and prostitution. “Prisons are very expensive. Unlike the United States, where people tend to focus on the moral arguments for imprisonment, the Netherlands is more focused on what works and what is effective.”

This attitude can partially explain why recorded crime has shrunk by about a quarter over the past nine years, according to the country’s national statistics office, and that is expected to translate into a surplus of 3,000 prison cells by 2021. The government has shuttered 19 of nearly 60 prisons over the past three years. In a world where many countries’ prisons are overcrowded, the Netherlands has the opposite “problem”, too much vacancy.

This pragmatism has also extended to how the elderly, and particularly those with dementia, are treated in the Netherlands.

Christopher F. Schuetze wrote a great story in today’s New York Times, Take a Look at These Unusual Strategies for Fighting Dementia, which told of the unorthodox approach to dementia treatment that doctors and caregivers across the Netherlands have been pioneering.
By harnessing the power of relaxation, childhood memories, sensory aids, soothing music, family structure and other tools to heal, calm and nurture the residents, rather than relying on the old prescription of bed rest, medication and, in some cases, physical restraints, nursing homes are able to heal, calm and nurture the residents.

Here are some great photos of what is going on at some of these progressive nursing homes:

Images of nature are projected on the ceiling of her room to calm a resident.
The beach room in the Houttuinen care center in Haarlem has real sand on the floor, heat-regulating lamps, and wind and the sound of waves piped in.
A projection of a tram stop at the Amsterdam Central Station in the Amstelring Leo Polak care center.Cred
A re-creation of an actual Amsterdam bar in one of the center’s common areas. The alcohol was real.
A virtual bike tour at the Christian Beth-San care center in Moerkapelle.Cr

In rethinking how to deal with dementia patients, many care centers have focused on the surroundings. Another tactic is to reorganize residents to create “family” clusters of six to 10 people.
Residents in many Dutch facilities have their own rooms, which they are encouraged to view as their own domain. There is often a communal living room and a kitchen, where residents help with chores like peeling potatoes and washing salad.

And here is my favorite, the robotic seal:

Paro, a therapeutic robot seal, in the Vreugdehof care facility in Amsterdam.

This really captured my attention, so I went looking for more info. Here is a video from a nursing home in Australia where the caregivers talk about the benefit of the robotic seal:

This is the second article I’ve read about how people with dementia re treated in The Netherlands. I had previously read about De Hogeweyk, a dementia-focused living center. The center is a self-contained world: Restaurants, cafes, a supermarket, gardens, a pedestrian boulevard, and more are available for the residents to use.

Each apartment hosts six to eight people, including caretakers—who wear street clothes—and the relationship between the two is unique. Residents help with everything from cooking to cleaning. They can buy whatever they want from the grocery. They can get their hair done or go to a restaurant. It’s those basic routines and rituals that can help residents maintain a better quality of living.

By treating residents as normal people, Hogeweyk seems to suggest that there isn’t such a huge difference, deep down—just differing needs. By designing a city tailored to those unique needs, residents avoid the dehumanization that long-term medical care can unintentionally cause.

So kudos to The Netherlands for taking such a progressive approach to treating those with dementia. While the approaches noted here do not cure Alzheimer’s, they do offer those who suffer from this crippling condition a chance to be happy, a feeling they might not otherwise experience. And isn’t being happy something we wish for everyone?

I hope this approach to taking care of the elderly, particularly the most vulnerable, spreads to more countries. As the world population ages, the need for such treatment will continue to grow.