In it together: Virtual dementia tours offer insight, understanding

Participants, equipped with sensory devices, experience a virtual dementia tour at Brookridge Heights Assisted Living and Memory Support. (Photo Courtesy of Brookridge Heights Assisted Living and Memory Support)

MARQUETTE — It’s difficult to see. Every step is accompanied by the pricks of pins and needles. Picking up small objects is a challenge. A non-stop stream of garbled voices chatter, but it’s impossible to understand what they’re saying. A list of several simple tasks was given, but the list seems to fade from memory more and more with each passing moment. As the memories fade, the anxiety and frustration grow. Finding a sweater and removing an envelope from a box are time-consuming, difficult tasks. Even though there are two other people in the room, the feeling of isolation is profound.

Then, it all stops. The voices quiet, vision clears, the pain is gone.

The virtual dementia tour is over.

The tour, which gave attendees a chance to literally “walk in the shoes” of people who have advanced-stage Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, aims to promote empathy and understanding of the experience that people with dementia live through everyday.

It gives participants a “full sense of what it feels like, for about three-to four minutes, of what it feels like to have late stage dementia,” says Jennifer Huetter of Brookridge Heights Assisted Living & Memory Support, who is certified by Second Wind Dreams to administer the virtual dementia tours at Brookridge.

Sensory tools, including glasses, gloves, a headset and shoe inserts, are used for the virtual dementia tour. Developed by second wind dreams and administered by Brookridge Heights Assisted Living and Memory Care, the virtual dementia tour gives participants a chance to experience the world of someone with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. (Journal photo by Cecilia Brown)

The tour fits attendees with research-based sensory tools, such as with glasses, gloves, shoe inserts and a headset, which allows particpants to experience the sensory state of those who have advanced-stage Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

Once participants are fitted with the sensory tools, they are given instructions to carry out several simple tasks, such as putting toothpaste on a tooth brush, putting on a white sweater, dispensing medications into a pill organizer and folding laundry.

The instructions are rapidly delivered — they are hard to hear through the fragmented voices that fill the headset and the special glasses make it difficult to read lips.

Participants are given several minutes to attempt to complete the tasks, then the sensory gear is removed and they are debriefed on their experiences.

The tour can be an emotional and eye-opening experience for many, Huetter said, especially those who have loved ones with dementia and/or serve as caregivers.

“Our goal is to kind of break down those barriers and help with families and their understanding, lend them the compassion they need and the support they need, but give them that opportunity to really experience what their loved on is going through,” Huetter said. “And then figure out how can we help, how can we make this easier for both mom or dad, and for ourselves”

This experience can be particularly important for those who have a loved one with dementia, as it can help them “get a glimpse into what mom or dad is going through,” Huetter said.

Huetter highly recommends the virtual dementia tour, which is free, for caregivers and loved ones of those with dementia.

“We really want folks, if they have a loved one and want to learn a little bit more, we’re your resource, come and call us, set up the tour and we can absolutely accommodate them and we’re happy to provide as much information as we can,” she said.

She said that she regularly provides tours to families, about 10 times a month. The tours can be arranged specifically for a group of family members.

“If mom or dad has dementia and they have children who want to understand more of what they’re experiencing, we can take all those siblings and have them go through the tour just themselves, so they have a very personal experience but then also they can share their personal stories,” Huetter said.

Going through the experience personally can help people understand why a person with dementia may talk to themselves, pace, become agitated, or have difficulty understanding directions and carrying out tasks.

After experiencing the virtual dementia tour for just a few minutes, many realize the importance of slowing down when communicating and offering more guidance through tasks — daily tasks can become difficult and frustrating when a number of unpleasant sensory distburances are occurring.

“It’s a sensitivity training, it’s there to help them with communication and understanding and empathy,” Huetter said.

Huetter says there are a number of things that can be done to help support a person who has Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.

It’s helpful to “live in their reality,” avoid correcting them, provide guidance and support through tasks, be patient and give instructions one at a time, Huetter says.

Balancing their sensory needs is also important.

“Overstimulation and having too much noise and commotion can be very distracting to the person with dementia,” Huetter said.

On the other side of the coin, Huetter says, it’s important to keep people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia engaged with a number of activities.

“If there’s not that activity and socialization for someone with dementia that actually will speed up that process,” Huetter said. “So what we’ll do is a combination of social opportunist, physical activities, so that we’re keeping our residents engaged and essentially slowing down the progression of the dementia or Alzheimer’s and helping them live fulfilling lives.”

A big part of this is knowing who they are.

“Before you can understand and care for someone who has dementia or Alzheimer’s you have really understand who they are as a person. so we learn a lot about our residents,” Huetter said, noting that a major part of Brookridge’s process is getting to know their residents so they can specifically direct programming to them.

For more information on Brookridge’s free virtual dementia tours, which can be offered to students, professionals, families and the public at Brookridge, call 906-225-4488 or visit www.brookridge-heights.com.

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248.