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Virtual Dementia Tour a 'window' into world of dementia

Kim May, Essentia Health division manager for the Park Rapids, Menahga and Walker Clinics, dons gear for her walk through a virtual dementia tour. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)

An ACTION Park Rapids team focused on making the community more dementia-friendly recently engaged in a unique training session.

The Virtual Dementia Tour (VDT) is designed to give participants "an up-close, hands-on experience that provides critical insight to those caring for people with dementia," according to its brochure. VDT was created by geriatrics specialist P. K. Beville.

More than a dozen ACTION Park Rapids team members took part. Outfitted in patented sensory tools, they attempted to complete everyday tasks while facing physical and mental challenges of someone with dementia.

Used internationally since 2001, the VDT aims to shed light on seemingly "inappropriate" and "difficult" behaviors exhibited by people with dementia, such as rummaging, hoarding, wandering, mumbling or repetition.

Trained facilitators then guide participants in a "debriefing." Judi Weiss, program developer at Land of the Dancing Sky Area Agency on Aging, led last week's discussion about the VDT experience, inviting ACTION Park Rapids team members to share their reactions.

The VDT lasts eight minutes.

Many participants expressed frustration and confusion.

"Think if this was your world 24-7," Weiss said.

Weiss explained the evidence-based reason for each simulation. For instance, many dementia patients have peripheral neuropathy, which creates pain in their feet and causes shuffling.

"Because of the dementia, they're unable to communicate with you their pain," Weiss said. "It is said that folks with dementia are the most undermedicated for pain because they cannot articulate."

Weiss shared how one dementia patient was pulling out her hair. Health care providers thought it was a mental issue, but it turned out she had a fractured hip. Once her hip was repaired, she quit pulling out her hair.

"You have to really look at strange behaviors and wonder, 'Is there something deeper?" Weiss said.

People with dementia lose hand-eye coordination and sensory perception. Due to damage to the occipital lobe, their peripheral vision is impaired. As dementia increases, their brains lose the ability to filter out noises, so they may react to all and startle easily. The progressive brain disorder results in "agnosia," a general term for the loss of the ability to recognize objects, faces, voices, sounds, shapes or smells, Weiss said.

Finally, Weiss offered tips for communicating with someone with dementia.

"It's rare that people with dementia interact with other people with dementia They have difficulty socializing, even though many of them live in a close setting," she noted.

Yet, socialization has been shown to decrease cognitive decline and improve function. Caregivers need to initiate socialization. For these reasons, one of the goals of the ACTION Park Rapids team is to form a "Memory Café."

According to the Alzheimer's Association, Memory Cafés are opportunities for people diagnosed with early stage memory loss and their family to engage with peers in a relaxed, unstructured environment.

"It gets them out. It gets them socializing and it stimulates their brains so they're not just constantly hearing their own voice. There's a one-to-one interaction with someone else," Weiss said.

Current ACTION Park Rapids team members include representatives from Living at Home, CHI St. Joseph's Health, Essentia Clinic, the Park Rapids Library, Land of Dancing Sky, Park Rapids Community Education, Knute Nelson and others.

Other goals are to raise awareness about dementia, support caregivers and provide educational resources and training to community members.

According to Beville, seven out of 10 people with dementia live at home where family and friends provide 78 percent of the care. Education and proper training are seen as the best ways to help caregivers and community members provide more empathetic care.

Offering a glimpse into the world of dementia, VDT is recommended for any community member — businesses, family, emergency first responders, police officers, firefighters, health care providers, service organizations, houses of worship.

Interested groups may contact Weiss at 732-9932.

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