Window Into Their World

Marian Hall Staff Completes Unique Virtual Dementia Tour

Kate Guay, assistant administrator, and Sister Beena Jose, a nurse in Antonia Hall, take part in the Virtual Dementia Tour.

Kate Guay, assistant administrator, and Sister Beena Jose, a nurse in Antonia Hall, take part in the Virtual Dementia Tour.

The room is dim. Your surroundings are blurred. Your feet hurt, and your fingertips fail when you reach for a pen or your toothbrush. There are things you should do today, but you’re not sure where to begin, where anything is and, sometimes, where you are. 

There are people all around, but they seem to understand even less of what you’re trying to tell them than you understand of what they’re trying to tell you. And in the background of it all – compounding the pain, frustration and confusion – is the constant din of static and noise, as if your internal radio dial is stuck between two far-away stations. 

It wasn’t always this way. You did well in school, were successful in your job, were perfectly capable of navigating the challenges of daily life, and maybe even raised a family.

But it’s different now. Because now you’re tangled in the throes of dementia. The good news is it will all be over in a mere eight minutes. But for those truly suffering from dementia, it’s a life sentence.

This is the message that no slideshow or lecture can hammer home quite the way that taking the Virtual Dementia Tour®can. Many read about the debilitating disease or experience it as caregivers but don’t realize until the end of those eight minutes what it’s really all about.

“This is the closest you can come to experiencing dementia without actually having dementia,” says Jenna Reo, an educator with Bridges Home Health & Hospice. “You’re walking in their shoes.”

Along with Bethany Morgan, Jenna is part of training team that is offering the staff of Marian Hall Home in Pittsburgh an immersive look at life with dementia. Marian Hall is a sponsored ministry of the School Sisters of St. Francis.

Using the Virtual Dementia Tour® model patented by Second Wind Dreams, the training provides those who care for the elderly the unique opportunity to move through the world with the diminished physical and cognitive skills of those they care for. Second Wind founder P.K. Beville, a geriatric specialist, developed the training after years of research.

“Part of dementia is not knowing what is happening around you or what others are trying to tell you,” Bethany says. “Those we train come out of this asking themselves, ‘What did I just experience?’ It replicates cognitive decline in a powerful way.”

After viewing an intimate video interview with a real-life dementia sufferer, each trainee is outfitted with devices – gloves, shoe inserts, glasses and headphones – that simulate the physical decline of aging. The equipment dulls fine motor skills, vision and hearing and mimics the foot pain of neuropathy. Then, after being led into a darkened room that is simply fashioned like a bedroom in a personal care environment, each trainee is given a short list of simple tasks to perform while in the room.

They are things we all take for granted – folding laundry, arranging silverware, finding a garment in the closet, penning a brief note to a friend. But under the circumstances and in the simulated world of dementia, these tasks are anything but easy. Most who complete the Virtual Dementia Tour® fail to perform all or even any of the simple tasks assigned to them. The sensory supression and inherent disorientation easily make the brief eight-minute experience feel much longer.

Recent training was conducted in the former bedroom of Sister Angeline Frantz, who struggled with severe cognitive impairment in the final years of her life. Perhaps it is her way of contributing to an understanding she was unable to communicate in life.

“No wonder some of our residents have trouble doing what we need them to do,” says Kate Guay, assistant administrator at Marian Hall, just after taking the Virtual Dementia Tour®. “They cannot express what they want.”

Spending mere moments in sensory overload creates a lasting impact, newfound understanding, and enhanced patience among caregivers who complete the virtual experience. A condensed version also is offered for families to experience at home. 

“It was beautiful,” says Sister Beena Jose, who works in Antonia Hall. “It gives you a different point of view about caring for dementia patients.”