Virtual reality reveals life with dementia

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Tasks like folding towels, putting on a sweater, setting a table, or counting pennies may seem simple, but for memory care nurse Elyse DiMartino, they're suddenly becoming a challenge.

"I'm very disoriented. I really didn't hear what she told me to do," she remarks.

That's because she is now inside the Virtual Dementia Experience. It's set up in a bus equipped with a small kitchen, bedroom, bath, and dining area. 

Senior Helpers Nature Coast and Second Wind Dreams set up the touring bus to give people a look at life with dementia.

Those who participate have six minutes to complete the assigned tasks. Only about 5 percent make it through the list.

DiMartino says, "It was an eye-opener." 

We caught up with the bus at The Residence at Timber Pines. Participants must wear glasses to block the vision in the center of the eye. 

Glen Scharfeld of Senior Helpers says the glasses were designed to mimic the aging eye. 

"These glasses impede someone's vision and it demonstrates a macular degeneration which is commonly seen with people with mid-level dementia," Scharfeld explained.  

Headphones randomly generate sounds like sirens, disrupting focus during a conversation. 

"I couldn't concentrate on anything because it was just a constant noise in my ears and you can't pick out one particular sound," DiMartino recalls.

You're also asked to wear bulky gloves making it hard to grasp and feel.  

"The gloves emulate a little bit of arthritis in the fingers, where you can't move them as much," Scharfeld explains.    

There are even prickly shoe insoles to mimic nerve damage, called peripheral neuropathy, in the feet.  

"It felt like needles in my shoes. It was very painful," DiMartino said.

She believes the experience helps her better understand how frightening and frustrating life can be for dementia patients. 

"It was all scary just not being in control not being aware of your surroundings," she says. "I'll be able to relate more to what they're feeling and how they're feeling and maybe try different approaches."

Scharfeld also uses the bus to expose family members to the disorder. 

"We liked it that we could provide a real experience for family members and caregivers to go through the tour and to create empathy so they could understand more about the people they are caring with and their loved ones."