Stepping into the world of dementia

The tourists sat waiting for instructions.

They filled out forms. They answered questions. Then, they began putting on special equipment.

They put ridged plastic insoles into their shoes.

They put on plastic gloves for protection and a different outer glove for each hand.

Then, they stepped up a few steps into a dim room, where they donned special headphones and glasses.

Next, they were asked to perform a list of tasks.

People wait to experience ‘The Virtual Dementia Tour.’ When taking the tour, they wear gloves, headphones and glasses, and walk on ridged plastic insoles in their shoes in an experience that simulates impacts of dementia. (B.C. Manion/Staff Photos)

People wait to experience ‘The Virtual Dementia Tour.’ When taking the tour, they wear gloves, headphones and glasses, and walk on ridged plastic insoles in their shoes in an experience that simulates impacts of dementia.
(B.C. Manion/Staff Photos)

Through the headphones they heard recordings of chatter and continual noises. The glasses obscured their vision.

It didn’t take long to discover that the experiences on this “Virtual Dementia Tour” were disorienting and frustrating.

“I felt lost. I really felt lost,” Grace Walker said. “You can’t see, you can’t hear. You’re mixed up,” said the woman who works in housekeeping at American House Zephyrhills, on Pretty Pond Road.

That’s understandable, said Glen Scharfeld, a senior care specialist and owner of Senior Helpers, based in Spring Hill.

His company brought a mobile Virtual Dementia Tour to American House Zephyrhills last week.

The Virtual Dementia Tour was created by P.K. Beville, a geriatric specialist, as her postgraduate work. It is a scientifically proven method that builds sensitivity and awareness in individuals caring for those with dementia by temporarily altering participants’ physical and sensory abilities.

The tour is designed to simulate:

  • Loss of auditory interpretation and increased confusion
  • Loss of central and peripheral vision
  • Loss of sensory nerves and fine motor skills
  • Onset of arthritis and neuropathy

Beville donated the program to Second Wind Dreams, which has provided the experience worldwide.

An estimated 44.4 million people worldwide, including 5.2 million Americans, are living with dementia, the Second Wind Dream’s website reports.

This mobile unit is rigged to give people an opportunity to experience the impacts of dementia. The idea is to promote greater awareness, sensitivity and empathy for caregivers of people experiencing dementia.

This mobile unit is rigged to give people an opportunity to experience the impacts of dementia. The idea is to promote greater awareness, sensitivity and empathy for caregivers of people experiencing dementia.

“The Virtual Dementia Tour is designed to emulate mid-level dementia,” Scharfeld said.

“We provide this education to the community, to families, family caregivers. The reason we’re here is that there are caregivers here who deal with dementia every day. It’s designed to promote empathy and for people to understand what people are going through,” he added.

The experience helps people step inside the shoes of individuals who are living with dementia.

“We’re here to help you empathize with them and be patient with them,” Scharfeld said, as he chatted with some staff members from American House Zephyrhills, who had just completed the tour.

“We age. We get older. Our senses start to diminish. With dementia, it’s a whole different ballgame. What you’ve got to realize is that the brain, the brain cells are depleted in the different areas of the brain,” Scharfeld said.

“It takes the most recent memories, and they’re gone.

“People don’t remember stuff that just happened. They may remember their daughter as 30 years ago.

“They may think that they’re 30 years younger than they are. They won’t believe when they look in the mirror. It’s like, ‘Who is that? Who is that?’ You say, ‘That’s you.’ And they’ll say, ‘That’s not me. That’s an old lady,” he said.

Scharfeld is a retired law enforcement officer, who worked in Hillsborough County. He used to encounter people with dementia when responding to calls.

“I didn’t know that when I was running code to a burglary in progress, (it was) because a lady saw herself in the slider. She thought there’s somebody out there.

“Or, they’ll think the people on the TV are actually in the house,” Scharfeld said.

The sounds coming through the headphones enable those on the tour to experience the kind of confusion that people with dementia have in processing information.

“The person is sitting there. They’re confused. Some caregivers think, if I talk louder, they’re going to get it.

It’s not the hearing. It’s the processing,” Scharfeld said.

“They hear bits and fragments. That’s why they do crazy stuff. You ask someone to something, and they wind up doing something else,” he said. “The caregiver gets mad and frustrated.”

“We’re here to promote to you, empathy,” Scharfeld said.

The Virtual Dementia Tour has spread to 17 different countries, he said.

“What we did is, we took it mobile,” he said. “We basically have a house on wheels. We’re independently owned. This is our rig.

“I wanted to bring it to the community,” he said.

To find out more about future stops on the tour, call (352) 835-7191.

Published September 30, 2015

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