Reminders of East Germany’s communist past serve as memory therapy for senior patients

Every weekday morning, white-haired women patiently line up before a door at a Dresden retirement home, step in, and quickly step back nearly six decades into their past in Communist East Germany.

Most of the women – in their late 70s at the youngest – are suffering from severe dementia, but the reminders from bygone days trigger memories and skills once thought lost, and produce surprising levels of happiness and comfort.

They park their walkers next to a Kaufhalle sign from the former East German grocery chain, put on their colorfully-patterned nylon aprons and start the day just like they did some 50 years ago. They chop up bell peppers, tomatoes, and sausages for the popular Hungarian salad of their youth, wash dishes in an original 1960s metal sink and iron their laundry with old-fashioned pressing irons while happily humming along to schmaltzy East German tunes coming from a record player.

It’s hard to imagine that many were – not so long ago – bedridden and unable to eat or use the bathroom on their own, said Gunter Wolfram, the director of the Alexa home in the former East German city of Dresden.

“From the first day on, this room has been a big success story,” Mr. Wolfram said. “The people are very happy to recognize things from the old times. They immediately feel comfortable.”

Wolfram, who grew up in East Germany himself, said it was sheer coincidence that he found out that Communist kitsch and other memorabilia brought comfort to some of his 130 residents. The revelation came two years ago when he decided to decorate the home’s movie theater with a vintage flashy Troll scooter that was once very popular in East Germany.

“Instead of paying attention to the movie, these people got so excited about the motorcycle. They could all of a sudden remember how to start the ignition, and chatted with bright eyes about outings to the Baltic Sea on their own Trolls a long time ago – it was amazing,” Wolfram…

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