Dementia simulation: A tool for empathy

Published 10:02 am Tuesday, February 20, 2024

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The Area Agency on Aging (AAA) division of the Three Rivers Regional Commission (TRRC) held a dementia tour in West Point on Friday. At the West Point Technology Building, staff members walked participants through a simulation of what someone with Dementia or other dementia diagnoses goes through. 

The simulation was open to the public. Once they signed in, they were taken to a small room and outfitted with devices that limited or heightened their senses. This included, headphones playing static noises and muffled voices, glasses that simulated tunnel vision, inserts for shoes that pricked the bottom of the foot, and large gloves. 

The point of the devices was to mimic some of the common symptoms of dementia, or diagnoses that arise as one ages, and many dementia patients experience. The headphones mimicked the heightened sensitivity of noise many patients face. During the simulation, an occupational shout or bang would be mixed into the muffled voices.  

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Eyesight tends to decline as someone ages, and dementia is often seen in older individuals, hence the glasses. The shoe inserts and gloves simulated neuropathy of the hands and feet, which is common in dementia patients. Neuropathy happens when there is nerve damage outside of the brain and spinal cord and can cause numbness in the hands, hence the gloves, or pinpricks on the feet simulated by the inserts. 

Once outfitted, a staff member leads the participant into another room and asks them to perform a task, which is nearly impossible to hear with the headphones. The room is dark, with multicolored strobing lights, and items scattered around the tables. 

The subjects are timed on the task and can ask the attendant who stays in the room to repeat the task twice, however, the headphones make it extremely difficult. During the simulation, the attendant takes down notes on the subject. Common responses include pacing, muttering, asking for help and not getting any, jumping when a noise is loud, freezing, and picking up items and putting them back down.

Eventually, someone takes you back out of the room and takes off the hindrances. Another staff member leads you to a conference room to debrief about the simulation. It is common for those to be distressed, confused, angry, and aimless. 

“We can take all of that off, people with dementia can’t,” said Patricia Robinson, a Dementia Care Specialist with Three Rivers. 

Robinson makes it clear that the simulation is not supposed to portray the experience of every person with dementia. Some people may have neuropathy and noise sensitivity, while others may only have vision issues and numbness. But, these symptoms have been seen in dementia patients, along with the more well-known symptom of memory loss.

The goal of the Aging Agency is to make the world a more dementia-friendly place. Robinson said they offer classes for family and caregivers to learn about ways to care for dementia patients, but encourage the public to attend as well so they can create safer spaces for those with dementia diagnoses. 

“I always tell people, we can’t bring them into our world, we have to meet them in theirs,” said Robinson.

Some ways to do this: make sure they are aware of you and not sneaking up on them. Be mindful of noise and speak up when you have to. Robinson acknowledges it can be frustrating, but try to avoid phrases like, ‘You really don’t know’ or ‘Don’t you remember me’ with patients. Reassurance and letting them keep as much control in their lives as possible is important. 

“We have seen with dementia patients that they may forget who you are, but they never forget how you made them feel,” Robinson said. 

The TRRC serves 10 Georgia counties, including Troup. The Commission provides aging services, workforce development, transportation and other planning services.