'Virtual Dementia Tour' Leaves Participants Frustrated but Sympathetic


Imagine yourself in a carnival funhouse. You step inside and the lights go dim. You can barely see what's in front of you so you reach out your arms to feel your way along the walls, but this is no use.

Beyond the strange tingling sensation in your fingertips, all you can feel are some large, unidentifiable objects.

Suddenly the floor becomes uneven and you lose your balance. Trying to gain your bearings with limited sight and touch is tricky enough, but now it's almost impossible to concentrate because you are constantly bombarded by a hodgepodge of random, jarring noises.

Quickly realizing that this is not as "fun" as you had hoped, you struggle to make your way to the end and finally find the exit. You step out into daylight and onto steady ground, safely away from the chaotic madhouse.

But for those living with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, like 79-year-old Lawanda Wilson, this scenario is all too real -- it has become her life.

"I knew that my mother was starting to lose her memory a little bit, but I never dreamed that it would be anything like this," Blane Wilson said. "It was like you're in a dream and you're not waking up from it."

Alzheimer's, a progressive brain disease, slowly destroys brain cells, affecting one's memory and eventually the ability to carry out simple tasks of daily life.

About 5.3 million Americans currently live with Alzheimer's and every 72 seconds, a new patient is diagnosed with the disease.

Alzheimer's symptoms make caring for patients with the disease difficult and often painful -- particularly if the caregiver is a family member or loved one.

Even for the most sympathetic, loving caregivers like Blane and Georgia Wilson, it can be hard to truly understand the irritability, forgetfulness and distraction that beleaguer the victims of Alzheimer's disease.

Click here to visite the Alzheimer's Association website.

Experiencing Dementia Firsthand

P.K. Beville, a geriatric psychologist and founder of the nonprofit senior citizen advocacy group Second Wind Dreams, is trying to remedy this problem.

She created the Virtual Dementia Tour, an experiential kit used to simulate the symptoms of age-related Alzheimer's and dementia and to help caregivers better identify and cope with their patients' behaviors and needs.

"Once you go through [the exercise] you find that most of the behavior patterns are actually coping strategies," Beville said.

Here's how it works: First the subject is fitted with gear that simulates the physical symptoms of age.

A pair of yellow-tinted goggles mimics the effects of eye diseases, like macular degeneration and glaucoma.

The subject then places dried corn kernels in their shoes and gloves, creating painful sensations like those caused by peripheral nerve damage.

Finally, the subject's fingers are taped together, making it difficult to grasp objects and utilize their hands, as though the subject is suffering from arthritis.

Once the physical symptoms are manifested, the subject is ready to experience the cognitive effects of dementia, which can include memory loss, confusion, inability to concentrate, agitation and the inability to carry out simple tasks.

To create this mental disorder, the subject listens to something called a "confusion tape" through headphones -- a constant loop combining environmental noises, static fuzz, sporadic loud sirens and beeps.

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