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Groundbreaking research in a safe living space 

by Jane Pinzhoffer

Nothing could have prepared Dr. Nafia Al-Mutawaly for the obstacles he would face following his mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2013. Despite the former McMaster professor’s background in the bio-medical field and Department of Medicine, he was shocked to learn how little support was available for those living with dementia, and their caregivers. After a career of innovative research and following best practices, the gap that existed for those living with dementia became very apparent. Such a discovery was the catalyst for opening Ressam Gardens, a state-of-the-art memory care retirement community; the first of its kind in the country.

“I thought, no matter what I do in the energy program or the biomedical engineering with McMaster and the Department of Medicine, [it] is minimal compared to what I can do building a dementia care facility,” says Nafia. “The challenge here is not only for the people who have the disease but for the family, life has changed. Many healthcare facilities won’t accept dementia patients due to behavior challenges. The impact is huge on the person and their families.”

In the landmark study from the Alzheimer Society they found that in 2020 there were 124,000 new cases of dementia diagnosed (10,333 per month; 348 per day; 15 every hour) in Canada alone. By 2030, the annual incidence will rise to 187,000 new cases a year (15,583 per month; 512 per day; 21 every hour). This is creating an incredible strain on individuals, families, and our health care systems to meet the demands of this growing condition.

After his mother’s diagnosis, online research led Dr. Al-Mutawaly to fly to the Netherlands to visit the Hogeweyk Dementia Village. “It was the first time I saw that there was a way to handle the disease in a way you can provide what I consider practical healthcare,” says Nafia. “The concept was very simple. They didn’t practice the institutional approach. They said you need to establish a living space and deal with this disease as if this person has a small challenge about remembering how to cook, how to read, or how to have a shower.”

The 22 homes in the form of bungalows, each with the living space for approximately eight people, were Nafia’s blueprint for Ressam Gardens. He re-designed his building to mimic the multiple neighborhoods of the Dutch village, built across four levels instead, each containing 18 suites and multiple common areas for everyone to share. This vertical redesign would allow this kind of community to be built anywhere in Canada, including in denser areas like the Greater Toronto Area, so families could live and work nearer their loved ones.

 Ressam Gardens opened in August 2022, with a capacity for 60 residents. The high-tech facility is equipped with AI sensors and innovative uses of technology as part of its “Living Lab” approach to memory care that is designed to implement and generate research-based practices for improving the lives of their residents. The smart technologies range from biodynamic lighting systems that simulate the sunlight to help maintain circadian rhythm and sleep patterns, to interactive gaming systems that respond to movement and touch, to new trials for tracking systems to monitor a resident’s wellbeing while maintaining their independence.

Moreover, Ressam Gardens’ convenient location across from William Connell Park has allowed for a successful partnership with the Alzheimer’s Society and the City of Hamilton to bring Wi-Fi to the park’s 49 acres so that residents can communicate with their families online on their devices. William Connell Park will also be an area where Ressam Gardens is working with McMaster University on a tracking system to monitor its residents during outdoor excursions so they can enjoy the ample green space while giving families peace of mind.

These park excursions and other outdoor initiatives are a main pillar in Ressam Gardens’ approach. The home advocates for both on and off-site activities, which include supervised visits to nearby stores, coffeeshops, and the surrounding green spaces. Additionally, Ressam Gardens has partnered with the Alzheimer’s Society to host its activities such as “Sit to be Fit” and “Minds in Motion” at William Connell Park.

On-site, Ressam Gardens is conducting summer gardening projects, which it plans for residents to be an integral part of. Dr. Al-Mutawaly envisions that by being in nature and building a closer community environment, residents will feel right at home. The garden project has been a collaborative effort between the staff, leadership, residents, and families and is a research- proven therapeutic tool that helps residents by engaging their senses, providing meaningful activity, and encouraging their independence and confidence.

“Like any disease, the more you know, the more the evidence becomes overwhelming. What makes this matter even more challenging is we don’t know the cause; we don’t know how to quantify, and we don’t have a cure. From the beginning to the end, nothing but a bunch of unanswered questions,” says Nafia. “What I’m doing here is not only observation but also attempting to slow down the disease and improve the quality of life for our residents.”