Tuesday, March 23, 2010

So what if the cake is a lie?

The scientastic storytellers over at WNYC Radiolab released a new short today, "The Bus Stop". In ten minutes they weave a beautifully bittersweet tale about a simple way of coping with the 'necessary evils' involved in helping dementia and Alzheimer's sufferers.

Elderly patients often wander away into dangerous scenarios due to temporary confusion or disorientation. In serious cases, it becomes enough of a problem that patients have to be locked in for their own safety, a decision hard on patients and caretakers alike. The Benrath Senior Center in Düsseldorf, Germany came up with "an idea so simple you almost think it wouldn't work."

Here's the full Radiolab short:

The bus stop idea is a beautiful method of mitigating a widespread fear of assisted living. I love this story and I especially like the idea Radiolab is conveying here about natural, personal, ways of assisting the confused or delirious.

In that spirit of support, however, I would object to Lulu and Jad’s stated assumption that the bus stop is a "lie". No one deliberately deceives the patients into waiting at the bench or tells them that something is going to happen if they go there. We think of it as a lie because, to us, the important part is our expectations about the bus: when it comes and where it goes. It’s a lie to have a bench and a sign marking a bus stop if you deceive me into not getting home from work on time.

For the seniors, the important part is only that a bus will (probably) come. They have a sense of urgency or deep anxiety that needs to be resolved, and the bus stop is a symbolic destination signaling that they’ve begun to solve the problem by taking action. They see a familiar roadside bench that symbolizes “going places” without actually going anyplace. While you’re waiting for the bus, that’s as fast and as far as you can go; you have to wait because you can’t control the bus and nothing you do matters until it arrives, so you might as well relax. That's why there's a bench.

The bench and the sign are first and foremost physical truths and lies second, insofar as our superficial expectation. This bench relaxes anxious minds as much as bodies. A burden is lifted because there’s no sense worrying until the bus comes, so a forgetful mind easily ambles along to enjoy the beautiful outdoors for a while...

Putting it another way, the bus stop is at least a “truth” in the patient’s dream-world as Lulu and the nurse Regine describe. I hope this kind of remedial mental treatment catches on and more people learn about the success of simple, non-invasive solutions like the bus stop.

Lab notes: "The Bus Stop" and "Do I Know You?" podcast shorts follow the most recent Radiolab episode, "Lucy".


  1. I like their idea here, too. I think their explicit acknowledgement of it as deception is part of what makes it workable, though. Healthy, persistent questioning is warranted. Is it ok to use one form of deception to counter another, where the latter is something like delusion or self-deception? Is the practice compassionate and beneficial, as this group’s testimony thus far seems to indicate, or is it just convenient?

    In any case, I doubt that it’s possible to live a life free of deception. In addition to the deceptions that may be deliberately perpetrated upon us, I think we welcome a certain amount of our own doing. Even the healthiest of us need some little fictions to survive. We can, and rightly should at various points, acknowledge and assess them as fiction, lest we fall victim to the worst kinds of self-deception. But I think we usually allow some such “stories” to work (play?) for us in a way that makes life more meaningful and bearable.

  2. I enjoyed your piece on the Radiolab broadcast. Your response was much more thoughtful and thought provoking than the rest.


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