A growing crisis in our country threatens to sap resources, leave a significant portion of the population facing neglect or inadequate care, and engulf the lives of loved ones of those affected — Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
On Jan. 15, I had an opportunity to participate in a Virtual Dementia Tour at Live Oak Nursing Home and gain a better understanding of what people who suffer from dementia deal with on a daily basis.
It’s far more that forgetting where you put your car keys or wondering if you turned off the oven — dementia is a constant condition that those who have it must learn to live with, and which their loved ones must also adapt to, as well.
Before the tour started, we were asked a set of questions such as whether we were relaxed, whether we consider ourselves able to adequately handle simple tasks, whether we had negative thoughts about ourselves, etc.
After the tour, we answered the same questions in light of the experiences we had during the tour.
I remember thinking and saying before the tour that if things got too overwhelming, I might just find a quiet place to sit down and let the time tick away until the simulation was over.
I didn’t end up doing that, but if the tour had lasted much longer, I might have.
Participants were given impairments in order to participate in the tour:
• Inserts in our shoes designed to mimic the chronic discomfort that those with dementia experience.
• Thick gloves, which I referred to as “Micky Mouse gloves,” made it difficult to use your hands with the usual dexterity.
• Dark glasses that included blurry spots made it difficult to see.
• Headphones with constant noise made it hard to focus and concentrate, and added to a general sense of confusion.
We were each given five simple tasks and led to a darkened room.
One of those tasks was to count out change, another was to draw a photo of a clock with “10 minutes to four” depicted on it,” and so on.
Although there was someone in the room with us during our tour, I was told this person would not respond to any questions or comments.
With the impairments, it was difficult to see things in the room.
With the gloves I was wearing, I knew there was no way I would be able to zip up the sweater I was asked to find and put on, so I settled for just finding the sweater (actually, I missed it and put on a long sleeve shirt, instead).
The pens in the room were gel pens that didn’t write well, so unable to use my hands and the pen correctly. I recall just drawing a circle and writing “10 to 4” in the middle of it.
That’s not exactly following the rules, but I would at least make some attempt to do something, even if I knew it wasn’t exactly right.
One of the tasks was to find a flashlight and put batteries in it.
After I tried the other tasks, I just stood by a chair in the room waiting for time on the tour to expire. If I couldn’t find the item, I certainly couldn’t perform the task.
I was also asked to set a table for four. I placed silverware on the table, but was unable to find any plates.
The tour definitely helped to give me a better understanding of the frustrations and sense of futility that someone experiencing dementia constantly faces.
The tour offers an eye-opening experience for caregivers who grow frustrated in their loved one’s — or patient’s — ability to follow directions.
With all the impairments muddling one’s thinking and physical ability, what should be a simple task isn’t so simple, after all.
Alarming facts provided after the tour include:
• Alzheimer’s disease (a form of dementia) is diagnosed every 68 seconds in the United States.
• Fifty to 70 percent of people with Alzheimer’s will exhibit agitated and sometimes violent behaviors.
• The National Association of Elder Abuse and Neglect states that the better educated the caregiver is about how to provide good care, the less likely they are to abuse (physical or emotional) or neglect the elderly. Over 50 percent of caregivers admit to being abusive to their family member who suffers from dementia.
• The medical field is not prepared for the onslaught. Right now, only 7,600 geriatricians are available and 21,000 are needed, Only 4.7 geriatricians are available for every 10,000 seniors creating a chasm in care and decisions by doctors who are not trained in dementia care. This results is an overspending of healthcare dollars because of a lack of training.
• Healthcare costs for those with dementia are more than three times higher among older Americans than those not living with dementia.
• Dementia is the sixth leading cause of death and the only one with no cure.
While those facts make the situation seem somewhat hopeless — and it is frightening — there are those who are working diligently to help people understand the impact of dementia and what can be done to make the quality of life as good as possible for those affected by it.
There is still a long way to go, but educational opportunities like the Virtual Dementia Tour will help people to understand the challenges, and the need to provide the best opportunities and resources to deal with this chronic problem.
Jeff Osborne is the editor of The Progress. A Texan since 1973, he has worked for Texas newspapers for 25 years.