Kris Atkins and Megan Overbeck were two able-bodied individuals as they entered The Kensington Senior Living Community last Thursday. But as they were placed in a room set up like a slightly disorganized apartment and asked to accomplish simple tasks, the women had several struggles.
Instead of writing a short note to her family and putting it into an envelope, Atkins shoved a blank piece of paper in half way.
Overbeck slowly managed to match six pairs of socks and clear the table, but completely forgot to draw a picture of her family members and name them.
A group watched as they tried to accomplish these tasks, seemingly confused, uncomfortable and frustrated, walking around and talking to themselves to try to jog their memory.
The reason they had difficulty accomplishing these simple tasks is because they were wearing things that manipulated their sensory abilities in an attempt to mimic symptoms of dementia.
Both women were wearing sunglasses in an already dark room, which had yellowish glue over the lens and black stickers covering the very front and sides of one’s vision to mimic eye problems that come with age.
This caused them to place objects really close to their face, and the audience watching them suggested a real-life consequences for people with dementia would be problems with driving or finding things.
Nicole Campbell, Director of Operations for Agemark and organizer for the event, suggested that people make goggles with their hands in order to see what a person with dementia would, and go from there when trying to solve problems.
“It’s about changing our behaviors, not theirs,” Campbell said. “They can see what they can see. We can get mad about it. We can get frustrated when Mom’s not ready to go because she’s got a stain on her shirt. Or we can just fix the situation and understand that Mom probably can’t see that.”
They also both wore bumpy, plastic insoles in their shoes that stabbed their feet when they walked to simulate neuropathy, arthritis and other pain issues.
Although the group agreed that prolonged use of the insoles would cause someone to be tired and cranky, Atkins and Overbeck did not mention anything about foot pain while trying to accomplish the tasks.
“A lot of people have chronic pain, and when they have dementia they are not always able to tell us,” Campbell said. “Most of the time, people with dementia can only really process and concentrate on one thing at a time. We had given them some tasks, we had all this stuff going on, and even though their feet hurt, it’s not something that they verbalized. So we as caregivers have to get really good at paying attention to those signs.”
They also had on thick work gloves on to simulate arthritis and make nimble tasks more difficult.
Overbeck, who is the activities director at Good Samaritan Society, was tasked to put a belt through the loops of a pair of pants. When she was unable to accomplish the task, she mimicked one of her past residents, shoving the belt inside the pants and moving it aside.
Campbell explained that that could be a reason why people with dementia put objects in strange places, and that it was not just them being messy and unorganized.
Finally, they were each wearing a headset that Atkins described as “two different radio stations that weren’t quite tuned in.”
Throughout them working on their tasks, the headphones made noises like car horns, sirens and phones ringing, which they both ignored and continued what they were doing.
Campbell said that the headphones had two functions: to mimic hearing aids, which amplifies all the sounds nearby, and to demonstrate the single-minded focus that people with dementia can have.
“If somebody comes up to me and says ‘I don’t know what happened. My mom was fine, and then she burned down the kitchen. She never responded to the alarm. She didn’t do anything.’ That’s foreign to families,” Campbell said. “Mom could have been doing a task that she thought was important. She had another task, and it kind of becomes white noise.”
Campbell said she’s had cases were the opposite happens, as well. A person with dementia hears a siren on the radio or down the street and become alert, causing them to get hurt or lost in their rush to leave the environment when there’s no fire to begin with.
After Campbell showed some of the effects of living with dementia, she suggested ways that families and care givers can help them.
Several people in the group mentioned the exasperation that comes with having to repeatedly answer questions, to which Campbell suggested giving them an answer that would comfort them.
“I had a resident, and he knew all day his wife was gone until 2 o’clock,” Campbell said. “At 2 o’clock he’d forget. He’d come up to the front door and he’d say ‘well, I’m going to go see Dorothy.’ Would that have been the time for me to say ‘remember, Dorothy passed’? I’d say ‘you know what? Dorothy had a hair appointment. Why don’t you hold off, and as soon as she gets back I’ll see if we can get you right over there.’”
Campbell explained that repeatedly answering something won’t cause someone with dementia to remember it.
“The one blessing – if there is anything in dementia – is that their memory is short. So if you say something wrong, or give a response that is not well taken, you do have an opportunity to fix it,” Campbell said.
Campbell said that there were things she could’ve done to help Atkins and Overbeck when they were doing the tasks, such as getting their attention before telling them what to do, giving tasks in seven words or less, speaking slowly and enunciating and offering to help them.
“There’s a lot of value in doing the tour, and there’s a lot of value in watching,” Campbell said. “One: that it’s not the most boring thing that you’ve been to. And two is that you’re able to take something that you learned today and put it into immediate use.”
Campbell said she’s done dementia tours for families, community groups and churches, and started it as a more helpful and lighthearted way at looking at dementia, as opposed to just speaking about it.
“The most comments I get is where people will say ‘I wish I would’ve known this sooner,’” Campbell said. “It’s helpful to understand that there is a reason why their loved one is acting or behaving in the way that they are, and provide some validity to that and ways to help that situation.”
Dementia tours can be arranged through Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org