I’ve read unique personal stories from both caregivers and individuals that struggled with the diseases associated with aging, such as Dementia. As I read these courageous stories, it seems like human nature to form that bond with the writer living with this disease. More importantly, the authors allow the reader a glimpse of their daily challenges, needs, thoughts, and frustrations of living with Dementia. Although these stories contain a lot of sadness, I read them also to inspire and motivate myself to further learning. “How can I better serve or how can I make a difference?” This is the question I ask. It is probably a question that is contemplated by both aging professionals and family members on a daily basis. As I read, I reflect on those instances when things “didn’t go as planned,” as an activities professional in an Assisted Living, memory Care setting. I think about the moment my hand was smashed in a piano, when I found myself stuck in an elevator with a resident that supposed I was her husband, and when making chocolate covered strawberries quickly turned into chocolate covered chairs. These were all results that derived from a combination of bad planning and Dementia.
Many times we see the behaviors, frustrations, and inabilities. We sympathize with that individual and attempt to help. Further, it certainly makes one wonder what it is like internally for that person causing sympathy to turn to empathy. Reading the latest research, receiving the most updated training, and experience allows insight into their world, but we really never know. We haven’t walked in those shoes, and no training method or practice will ever prepare someone to lace those shoes tightly.
I held this thought in my mind one year ago, as for the first time; I completed the Virtual Dementia Tour. Anyone that has spent a small amount of time in the field of aging knows exactly about this training tool. The VDT was developed by a geriatric expert, P.K. Beville to allow the family member, caregiver, and healthcare professional to experience the daily struggles of an individual living with Alzheimer’s disease. For those that serve these individuals, it gives a sense, for that small moment in time, of having to complete tasks and feeling overwhelmed by all the sensory distractions.
As I prepared for the Virtual Dementia Tour, I knew what was to come. What I didn’t know was how well I would overcome these obstacles. I assumed it would be very difficult, as I’m told multitasking in my normal cognitive state is not a strength. Some of the modifications that simulate Alzheimer’s disease include headphones with repeated noises and interruptions to simulate the inabilities to understand basic commands, goggles that impair eyesight as peripheral vision begins to fade, and gloves that limit tactile abilities as fine motor skills decline. All the while, you are expected to complete a list of fairly simple tasks with these modifications.
Upon completion, I felt like that short amount of time lasted an eternity. I completed three out of five tasks correctly. In one task, I was asked to hang some trousers and a button down shirt. For some reason, I found myself wearing these clothes at the end of the tour instead of hanging them. My assessment of myself could be summarized in one word: overwhelmed.
My reflection on the Virtual Dementia created the obvious; a lot of empathy and understanding. It allows the realization that we really are living in their world. In a society and industry that values efficiency and multitasking, we must slow down to make life easier for the resident which is a minor adjustment that will yield the quality of life they deserve. We must create an environment that is peaceful yet minimizes overstimulation. It is no doubt familiarity is a necessity and that routine is a constant in this equation.
As many hold onto that glimmer of hope that a cure will someday exist, I hold training and education in high regard. The Virtual Dementia Tour is a resource that provides education and points us in the right direction. It reminds us that we have traveled a long way on this journey, yet we still have a long way to go. As we look at the staggering statistic of 5.2 million Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, we really have no time to be complacent.
Andrew Greeson, Community Relations Director
The Oaks at Hampton