Virtual tour simulates world of dementia

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

Little by little, my reality became unrecognizable.

It started when Jerry Lynn Daniels, Commonwealth Senior Living's regional director of resident programs, handed me two shoe inserts, the ridged plastic designed to cause a pointed pain akin to neuropathy with every step. Next, I donned latex gloves, topped by thick gardening gloves, to limit fine motor skills.

Daniels led me to the room containing the Virtual Dementia Tour, presented Thursday in Commonwealth Senior Living at Williamsburg. She gave me vision-muddling glasses and headphones blaring a relentless cacophony of noises, voices.

Then, she opened the door.

I had been told earlier I'd have to complete five everyday tasks in the room. Once inside, plunged into darkness and disorientation, I felt helpless and frustrated. Unable to see, hear, think. Severed from the self I had been and the world I had known.

Exactly what that room contained, you'll have to take the tour to discover, but the Virtual Dementia Tour simulates feelings not unlike those experienced every day by more than 47 million people, according to 2016 data from the World Health Organization.

"What (the tour has) done is used all these different modalities to create an overall feeling," said Bernadette Cavis, Commonwealth's vice president of resident programs.

The tour was developed in 2001 by Second Wind Dreams, a nonprofit organization based in Georgia and founded by P.K. Beville. Since its creation, the tour has been taken by more than 1 million people. Cavis said Commonwealth Senior Living has facilitated the tour for close to 1,400 people.

"It stayed with me for a long time," Cavis said of the first time she took the tour.

Cavis believes the tour beneficial in its ability to create "an appreciation and a sensitivity" to challenges contained in the world of dementia.

"That it is real and can be distressing," she said. "Their ability to control it is limited."

Trained staff, in this case Cavis, process the experience with participants following the tour, tying it to behaviors often caused by dementia and discussing possible implications in caregiving.

For one, the inability to complete tasks within the tour illustrates the need to break tasks down, Cavis explained.

It's common for participants to exhibit "strange" behavior while in the room, but it often doesn't feel strange during the experience.

"In their mind's eye, what they're doing makes perfect sense," Cavis said.

Daniels said the noise blasting from the headphones points to some mistakes often made in relating to people with dementia: assuming that they hear what's said and, if this is true, assuming that they understand.

The noise nearly brought Becky Watson to tears.

"I didn't realize how overwhelming the sound (was)," said Watson, who took the tour.

As owner and founder of Music for Wellness, Watson is a board-certified music therapist who works in memory care facilities and with people affected by dementia.

After emerging from the tour with altered perspective, especially on how people with dementia experience sound, Watson said she'll be able to plan music therapy sessions to better serve patients — using less drumming, for example, and more soothing sounds.

Cavis hopes the tour pushes participants toward more education, whether through support groups, online research or elsewhere.

"Education is the key," Daniels said. "Helping people to understand what they go through is just a little thing that we can do."

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

For more information, visit secondwind.org or contact Commonwealth Senior Living at Williamsburg at 757-383-7157 to find out when the next Virtual Dementia Tour will be presented locally.

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