A call for understanding

Local law firm Marshall, Parker and Weber, 49 E. Fourth St., hosted a free, half-day conference for professionals who work with seniors May 1 at the Genetti Hotel.

The 17th annual event attracted more than 200 participants from organizations such as Elmcroft Senior Living, Kramm Heath and Rehab Center, Comfort Keepers, Home Instead Senior Care, Visiting Angels, SouthernCare and more.

According to Melissa Bottorf, director of marketing and business development at Marshall, Parker and Weber, this year’s event was particularly special because it featured Jan Nelson, of Courageous Aging, Marietta, Ga., who offered attendees a Virtual Dementia Tour.

“The tour required the attendee to take a short intake survey of a few questions and then get suited up with goggles, earphones and special gloves,” Bottorf said. “They were then asked to make their way through the hotel room completing ‘simple’ tasks such as unbutton a sweater, find an ace in a deck of cards, pick up a fork, etc.”

Nelson said that the tour is the brainchild of geriatric psychologist P.K. Beville. “When I was on staff with her, we went about doing research on the topic of cognitive training, which no one was doing at the time, only physical,” Nelson said. “The tour is based on what she observed over 15 to 20 years we try to replicate some of the behaviors, mannerisms and frustrations that we saw residents and elders demonstrate.”

The tour is a scientifically proven method designed to build sensitivity and awareness about dementia for participants and has been featured on “The Doctors” and with Cynthia McFadden of “ABC News.”

Nelson said the experience usually is eye-opening for the families who have a loved one suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s and helpful for professional caretakers who can finally get a glimpse of what it is like for those who can’t communicate what they are feeling.

And many who went through the tour felt those frustrations. According to Jennifer Toth, of Altoona, with Bankers Life and Casualty, the exercise was really difficult.

“Things are going on at the same time, you have a pain in your shoe and you’re trying to remember a list of things to do,” she said. “I remembered two things, but I was frustrated that I couldn’t get it done. It was a good experience, though, and I recommend it for those who work with seniors.”

Toth appreciated the insight provided by the tour, along with the additional resources provided at the conference.

“There’s a lot of good information here,” she said.

Shelby Weber, an estate administration case manager at Marshall, Parker and Weber, was one of the “room watchers” during the tour who made sure no one was injured while trying to complete the tasks. She observed that younger people who took the tour had a better time remembering the tasks when compared to the older participants.

Nelson, who has a master’s degree in education, has spent 22 years working with eldercare communities. She believes that when elders are offered the same opportunities for education and activities, they rise to a surprising participatory level.

“They want to be able to pursue their passions, their interests, learning, giving and having fun, no matter what their cognitive level,” she said. In 1999, Nelson began working with Second Wind Dreams as program coordinator in making dreams come true for eldercare residents. Although she now is a freelance consultant, she still donates all proceeds from the Virtual Dementia Tour to Second Wind Dreams.

Her goal is to have as many people as possible experience the Virtual Dementia Tour, so that they can help break the stigma of “crazy old person” when they see an elderly person who may be exhibiting dementia-related frustrations.

“As soon as someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, their friends scatter because they don’t know what to do,” Nelson said. “Three out of five people in America are affected by people with Alzheimer’s.”

Nelson said that although the causes of Alzheimer’s are unknown, she believes it is taking a tremendous toll on the economy. “There are predications that it costs $108 billion dollars to care for people with Alzheimer’s and employers are losing $39 billion a year for family leave and additional related expenses.”

Bottorf said her firm tries to have unique and cutting-edge programs to bring to professionals in the area that will be meaningful to their work with seniors.

“We found the Second Wind Dreams website online and fell in love with the Virtual Demential Tour,” Bottorf said. “We knew this experience was never hosted locally, so our managing attorney Tammy Weber moved some mountains so we could get Jan to the Professional Update.”

Karen Sheaffer, planned giving officer at Lycoming College, said the elder estate planning programs were helpful for her job. The conference provided several presentations, including “Irrevocable Life Insurance Trusts” by Tammy Weber and Dale A. Tice; “When Are Children Liable for Their Parents’ Long Term Care Costs: Understanding Both Sides” by Katherine Pearson of Penn State University Law School; and an elder law update by attorney Matthew J. Parker.

Bottorf said the conference also was a way for attorneys, accountants, nurses, social workers, facility administrators and certified financial planners to get continuing education credits.

For more information about the Virtual Dementia Tour or to order a kit, visit www.secondwind.org.