Senior Care Center hosted an unusual and disconcerting tour Friday. The Area Agency on Aging of North Central Texas funded the Virtual Dementia Tour held at the center in a bid to give caregivers of those suffering from dementia an opportunity to experience the unrelenting confusion and frustration their loved ones face on a daily basis.
I decided to take the tour and see what it had to offer for those wanting greater understanding of the condition.
"The program is meant to enlighten people to what it is like to live in the world of dementia," Pam Brandon, Virtual Dementia Tour facilitator and trainer, told us.
I was grouped with two other participants, but it was obvious there would be no time for small talk. Brandon immediately set to work preparing us for the tour.
"I'm giving you neuropathy in your feet and hands," she told us.
She first had us place special inserts into our shoes which caused a prickling sensation on the soles of our feet. Then cumbersome gloves with fingers taped together emulated neuropathy and arthritis in our hands.
"You have to understand the loss of touch," Brandon explained.
Next was the simulation of macular degeneration with goggles designed to block off our center vision.
As a person who values my sight above all of my other senses, it would prove to be the most distressing aspect of the exercise for me. It made me feel completely defenseless.
The final addition were headphones with prerecorded background noise piped through to further increase a sense of confusion and detachment from the world. But unlike a sensory deprivation chamber which is meant to create a sense of calm, the constant chatter and static in my ears, the inability to see clearly, the irritation of the prickling in my feet and the loss of dexterity in my fingers made me feel tense and anxious.
The three of us, properly garbed for the experiment, stumbled our ways down the hall to the Virtual Dementia Tour room. There Brandon gave us a series of mundane tasks to perform. I was completely unsuccessful, but my companions at least attempted their chores.
Finally the exercise was over and Brandon turned the lights up to end our misery. The first thing I did was to rip the goggles off, even though my gloves made the effort a clumsy one.
Later, Brandon discussed my actions during the experiment with me.
"You went immediately into your safety zone, which I had expected from you," Brandon said. "That's what some older adults do. When there is too much chaos around them, they just sit down. You went into that safety zone within two minutes."
She further explained the frustration those afflicted with dementia live with can lead to anger.
"You can take those headphones and goggles off," she said. "It doesn't work that way for the elderly. If they are exhibiting difficult behavior, it's because they are living with this constantly."
I eventually got an opportunity to ask Brandon how she knew I would retreat into what she called the safety zone.
"I could tell you were a very sensitive person," she said. "That is the normal reaction for people like you."
I have already apologized to my son on behalf of the little old lady I am likely to become. Hopefully that safety zone will keep me quiet for his protection.
For more information about the Virtual Dementia Tour, visit www.secondwind.org.