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Caregivers experience virtual dementia

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Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Imagine a day when you've been bombarded with distractions, your feet are sore, your eyes are tired from staring at a computer screen, and you feel like you're all thumbs and even spilled your coffee. But work had to be done so you dealt with those things the best way you could.

For millions of people with dementia, that's not the scenario of a bad day. That's what they face every day of their lives.

Locust Grove Senior Living in West Mifflin offered caregivers a hands-on glimpse of what folks with dementia experience each day.

“The goal is to change the idea of aging,” said Mollie Osborn, a certified trainer with Second Wind Dreams who leads seminars about quality dementia care. “It's a way to understand a little more about the frightening, lonely world of dementia and to accept them instead of viewing them as someone with no feelings.”

She said there are 35 million people in the United States over 65 and 5.4 million suffer from Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia. Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability, such as memory, severe enough to interfere with daily life. A new case is diagnosed every 68 seconds in this country.

“It's hard to be empathetic toward someone when you don't know what they are going through,” Osborn said. “Sensitizing yourself to what they experience every day results in caregivers being more empathetic.”

Employees at Locust Grove and caregivers — an estimated seven out of 10 Alzheimer's patients live at home where family and friends provide 78 percent of the care — had a chance to experience for several minutes the struggles for a person with dementia.

Participants put inserts with rubber spikes in their shoes to simulate what it feels like to have poor circulation, arthritis or neuropathy. Oversized gloves create a sense of a loss of fine motor skills, neuropathy and arthritis. Specially designed goggles create vision resulting from macular degeneration, thickening of the eyes' lenses and slower reaction time of the pupils, and peripheral vision loss. Headphones with a nonstop barrage of sounds reflect the everyday noise the person experiences.

Going one at a time, each person was given five tasks to complete while being observed. When everyone had completed their virtual experience, Osborn asked for their feedback. Responses included, “It was depressing,” “It's scary and awful,” and, “I didn't know what to do because I couldn't hear what I was being told because of the noise.”

Osborn told participants they were overloaded, and not everyone has all of those conditions.

Based on observations, she explained some common dementia behaviors. Shadowing is common, she said, explaining patients will do what they see someone else doing.

“We want them to be productive because they want to be helpful. Let them help fold laundry or go for a walk with them,” she suggested.

Often patients will pick something up and hold it, she said.

“They do that to try to control their environment,” Osborn said of hoarding. “Don't take away what they are hoarding but exchange it with something else. For instance, if they are saving fruit, substitute plastic fruit with the real thing.”

Eliminating distractions is important, Osborn explained, especially turning off the television before talking to them and talking face-to-face.

“We talk fast and ask a lot of things and that won't work,” she said. “You must talk slow, ask short questions, and expect them to do only short tasks. We often ask things of loved ones that they really can't do. Maybe our expectations are a little too high.”

Often caregivers have to be detectives to determine why the people they look after are acting a certain way.

“Maybe their feet hurt, but if they don't communicate that, no one will know,” she said. “Or maybe they can't communicate that. Make sure they have their shoes on the right feet, that they are wearing the right glasses, and they have hearing aid batteries.”

Osborn said the virtual experience should give caregivers a better idea of what a person with dementia is experiencing.

“It's important to remember that it's not a virtual experience for them — it is their reality, it is very real for them. As caregivers you have to be more patient, slow down, take a step back and remember what they are going through.”

She stressed that those with dementia will not change.

“We are the ones who need to change. Never argue with them because you will never win and everyone will get more aggravated,” Osborn said. “We need to change our behavior because they won't change theirs. We have to change our approach to them.”

Carol Waterloo Frazier is an editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1916, or

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