A glimpse of dementia A Virtual Dementia Tour personal experience

Fold the towels in the room.

Find the necktie and put it on.

Draw a picture of your family and label it.

Tear out a newspaper advertisement.

Fold and put away the clothes in the room.

These may sound like easy tasks to most people, but for someone living with dementia or Alzheimer’s, these tasks are frustrating parts of everyday life.

During a recent Virtual Dementia Tour, I had the chance to experience a small part of what it felt like to have dementia.

The tour was part of the 17th annual professional update conference hosted by local law firm Marshall, Parker and Weber, 49 E. Fourth St., on May 1 at the Genetti Hotel.

According to Melissa Bottorf, director of marketing and business development at the firm, more than 100 people registered to take part in the tour, which was held on the second floor of the Genetti.

Once upstairs, Jan Nelson, of Courageous Aging, Marietta, Ga., explained the process and the equipment I would wear.

First, I was instructed to put a special insole in my shoe that mimicked the uncomfortable sensation caused by bunions, spurs and other foot ailments.

Then, I was given two sets of gloves that impaired my sense of touch to simulate the effects of arthritis.

An assistant then helped put on special goggles with large black dots in the center to impair my vision as if I had macular degeneration.

Finally, the assistant put on large headphones that were programmed with loud noises, sounds, people talking and background music – all playing at the same time – so that I could experience sensory deprivation and the chaos of trying to filter out competing messages.

It was all a very uncomfortable situation. I immediately found myself getting anxious and walking differently as I was led into a supervised room.

Once at the doorway, the assistant gave me some simple tasks to perform – fold the towels, tear out the newspaper ad, etc. – once I was inside the room.

The room was extremely dark and there were other people inside, which made it difficult to concentrate.

Once inside the room, I quickly found the newspaper and was pleased with myself for remembering the first item on my mental checklist. As I went to open the paper, I realized I couldn’t separate the pages – remember those strange gloves I was wearing – and started yanking at the paper in any way possible to open it.

Once I opened it, I struggled to find an ad and once I did, I ended up tearing out nearly half the page.

I turned around and noticed the towels and started folding them on the bed.

But as soon as I finished one towel, I found another, then another and another.

I folded them and tried to remember what else I was supposed to do when another woman in the room bumped into me and I lost my train of thought.

The noise in my headphones grew louder – a siren went off and I turned around to see where it was coming from – and I found myself beginning to feel quite a bit of unease and anxiety, as if I were beginning to have a panic attack.

Suddenly, I found a necktie and put it around my neck. But I still couldn’t remember my two other tasks.

I had that nagging feeling you get when you know you are forgetting something.

As I wandered around the room, the assistant came back in and led me outside to an area where I was debriefed and the items were removed that I?had put on for the tour.

I was given a survey and exit questionnaire as the other people in my group all discussed how difficult and frustrating it was for them. No one in my group finished all the tasks in the allotted time. Most of us couldn’t remember all of our tasks until our group leader repeated some of them for us.

I was angry – I don’t know why – and frustrated by the whole experience.

In talking with Nelson afterward, she said I had a fairly common reaction. And anger often is a reaction had by those who are frustrated when they can’t properly express themselves.

She said the tour helps people understand why elderly people with dementia and Alzheimer’s require a routine, additional sunlight and the ability to focus on a single task at a time.

She believes that keeping a television on for background noise only adds to the frustrations and that most television programming should be banned from a senior’s room.

After spending only five minutes in a sensory deprived state, I can understand why.

Nelson has Virtual Dementia Tour kits available at www.second wind.org that can help families better understand what a loved one is going through.

I definitely recommend the experience.