Jennifer Lange hobbled into a dressing room Wednesday at the Florian Gardens in Eau Claire, the door closing with a click behind her.
A woman holding a clipboard gave Lange a series of commands, her words loud and fast: “Find the pants and put the belt through the belt loops. Put the batteries in the flash light and turn it on. Clear the table.”
The woman left after two more commands and Lange was alone in the room, the sunlight streaming in through the window and casting shadows across the otherwise dim room. Lange’s surroundings included two couches — both with heaps of clothes on top — a counter with mirrors above it and a long table adorned with everyday objects.
Lange set off in search for the belt and jeans, her movements slow, uncertain and labored. She found them on the couch. Behind her, another person entered the room and received commands from the woman with the clipboard.
“I forgot what I was supposed to do next,” Lange said as she struggled to thread the belt through the loops.
The task would have been simple to the 34-year-old from Osseo had she not been wearing garments designed to mimic the effects of dementia. The Virtual Dementia Tour, created by Second Wind Dreams and sponsored on Wednesday by Azura Memory Care, Our House Senior Living and the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Eau Claire, is meant to show participants what it’s like to live with dementia.
About 200 people came through the Florian Gardens to experience the tour, which includes an informational session as well as the interactive experience. Participants ranged from health care professionals and relatives of dementia patients to everyday people interested in learning more about the disease.
Lange and those who went through the simulation wore dark sunglasses that muted colors and eliminated peripheral vision, headphones that played static noise with an occasional loud thump or ringing telephone, thick gloves with limited movement on their dominant hand and shoe inserts that mimic pain associated with neuropathy.
“That was crazy,” Lange, who works at Dove Healthcare-Osseo, said as she emerged from the simulation room. “It really puts into perspective what these people go through. I can’t imagine living daily like that. I couldn’t handle five or 10 minutes.”
Paula Gibson, regional director of communications and engagement at Azura Memory Care, led the informational session before participants walked through the tour. She’s one of 60 certified instructors for the Virtual Dementia Tour in the world, and the only one in Wisconsin.
The point of the tour, Gibson said, is to help caregivers and family members understand why their loved ones with dementia act the way they do and to use that knowledge to give them the highest quality of life possible.
“Until you are able to walk in someone else’s shoes, you cannot understand the struggle of their daily life,” Gibson said, noting that one in three families have someone with memory loss.
A common problem between dementia patients and their caregivers, Gibson said, is communication.
Dementia patients in the middle and even early stages of the disease have lost the ability to explain where they feel pain and to what degree. That means, she said, if a dementia patient refuses, sometimes violently, to go for a walk or do activities others say is good for them, they don’t need mood-altering drugs like Lorazepam, they might just need Tylenol to ease pain.
Gibson lost her grandmother and father to dementia. Before she got involved in the Virtual Dementia Tour, she said she couldn’t understand what her father was going through.
When nurses would ask if he needed medication, he’d flirtily banter with them until they left the room, then turn to Gibson and cry, hugging his body and rocking back and forth in pain. Gibson said she now understands her father didn’t have the ability to communicate his pain.
“If we went to the root cause, which is pain,” Gibson said, noting that many mood-altering drugs end up putting patients to sleep, “they’re going to be able to function at a higher level. They might go for a walk. They might go out and garden. They might just live life.”
Jways, he said — sometimes he’ll find the coffee maker running without a filter. Twait said he thinks the tour helped him better understand his wife.ames Twait, 80, of Eau Claire has a wife with dementia. She lives at home with him, and the dementia is noticeable in little
“It was just disorienting,” Twait said of his experience on the Virtual Dementia Tour. “I just can’t put words to it. It’s hard.”
In addition to understanding how those with dementia feel, Gibson said it’s important to treat normal aging processes, such as cataracts glaucoma, that might be overshadowed by dementia.
Gibson also advocates for treating normal aging processes in dementia patients, such as cataracts glaucoma, that might be overshadowed by dementia.
“We should continue to treat it (despite dementia),” Gibson said, “because if there was a rainbow outside of my room, I would want to see it on my last day.”
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