As you walk around the room, your vision appears fuzzy, and you can only see what’s directly ahead of you. A cacophony of voices distracts you, and overstimulation makes focusing difficult. You’ve been assigned a series of seemingly simple tasks like buttoning up three buttons on a shirt, folding four pillowcases and stacking measuring cups, which have suddenly become daunting. The gloves on your hands only compound your struggles as you fumble clumsily with a button. What were you supposed to do next again?
This is what it feels like to be immersed in the Dementia Live Experience, an experiential sensitivity training program offered through Mount Pleasant Gardens Alzheimer’s Special Care Center, an assisted living facility that exclusively serves individuals with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The demonstration allows you to experience a day in the life of someone with Alzheimer’s, according to Mount Pleasant Gardens Community Resource Director Leanne Lovin.
“Almost everyone knows somebody that has dementia,” commented Lovin. “A lot of times we don’t understand some of the things they do, so this is really eye-opening.”
Alzheimer’s is a slow, fatal brain disease affecting 1 in 10 people over age 65, according to the Alliance for Aging Research. It affects memories first, and, as the disease progresses, it hinders speech, logic and emotion and alters a person’s senses and behavior.
The Dementia Live Experience involves the delegation of five routine tasks that are repeated once. Participants wear special glasses, a headset and gloves to simulate the sensory impairments and physical limitations of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s.
“A lot of Alzheimer’s patients lose their peripheral vision,” explained Lovin. “They can only focus on what’s in front of them.”
The glasses mimic this sight impediment.
Another common dementia symptom is neuropathy – nerve damage that causes numbness in the extremities – thus the gloves.
“Neuropathy makes daily activities a struggle,” said Lovin.
White noise and everyday commotion in the form of TV chatter, people talking and music coming through your headphones replicates the overstimulation of senses that a person with Alzheimer’s might experience as multiple distractions, diverting their attention. Alzheimer’s patients also sustain hearing loss that typically comes with aging and often have light sensitivity.
The training helps staff better understand the thought processes and perceptions of someone with Alzheimer’s, so they remember details that make life simpler for their residents, such as ensuring dinner plates are placed directly in front of them.
“It’s just as important that as caregivers we realize we can’t change someone with dementia,” reflected Lovin. “We have to do the changing.”
Mount Pleasant Gardens Program Director Olivia Prince joined me in the simulation. She began working in senior living when she was 18 and hadn’t done the dementia training since that time. Dementia patients are her specialty and favorite area of care. The exercise provided an impactful refresher for her.
“I definitely can understand some of the residents feeling lost and anxious,” she empathized. “Because they’re trying to do one thing and then they can’t remember, so they get really anxious.”
All staff attend the training, but it is also offered to family members of residents. Depending on the COVID-19 situation, Lovin hopes to provide the Dementia Live Experience to the community by early 2022.
“I think everyone should go through this program,” she mused.
Mount Pleasant Gardens Administrator Denise Kish noted that the program affects everyone differently. The headset commotion unnerves some people more while others might become flustered by the altered visual perception.
“No one person goes through this the same way,” she observed. “I had no trouble buttoning my shirt, but I couldn’t stand my ears and the noises.”
Describing Mount Pleasant Garden’s approach to Alzheimer’s care, Kish said she tells staff to “let them (residents) do what they can do” and “be a student of your resident and step in when you can,” adding that “because when you start to take everything away from them, the brain stops functioning.”
Residents at Mount Pleasant Gardens are kept active and engaged through physical, intellectual, social and spiritual programming. From music therapy and exercising to Bible study, the goal is to stimulate the mind and make residents feel contentment.
“We create joy and moments that matter,” Kish remarked. “It’s a hard disease. But we’ve learned so much about how to deal with it. And we live in their moments. We don’t live in ours.”
By Colin McCandless