SUN CITY CENTER — After her sister wandered away from home recently, Pat Herzberg knew that she needed help to care for Marcella, who suffers from dementia.
Herzberg and her niece Gloria Farrar went to Sun City Senior Living Tuesday for help — and left with an entirely new perspective.
Thanks to a hands-on, sensory exhibit at the assisted-living facility, the women experienced first-hand the kind of physical and sensory changes that can turn simple tasks into tremendous challenges.
"Now I understand why (Marcella) does one thing at a time," Herzberg said. "She's doing the best she can do under the circumstances."
Recently featured in an ABC-TV report, the Virtual Dementia Tour was developed by P.K. Beville, a geriatric specialist and founder of Second Wind Dreams, a nonprofit devoted to helping the elderly. The Sun City Center facility, which recently installed the tour, threw it open to the public Tuesday, and will do so again in September.
Participants wear goggles that affect their vision, shoe inserts that make walking uncomfortable and unsteady, gloves which impair hand coordination, and earphones that produce constant noise — a blaring radio and television, doors slamming, cars screeching, sirens going off.
Placed inside a room similar to a small apartment, participants are asked to complete five tasks in 12 minutes such as setting and clearing a table, filling a glass of water, putting on clothes and folding them, writing a letter to a loved one.
Observers record their behavior for a follow-up interpretation and consultation.
"I'll be more patient with Marcella," Herzberg said as she concluded the tour. "The noise went right through me and I never realized this happens."
Farrar was struck by the vision problems patients such as her Aunt Marcella can suffer.
"The goggles gave me tunnel vision and impaired my ability to see clearly and straight ahead," Farrar said. "Now I know how difficult it is to move around, even from one room to another."
Farrar plans to suggest that the health care facility where she works in Illinois also use the virtual tour.
"If you involve people, they understand it," Farrar said. "It's a great learning tool."
The tour prompted Sun City Living activities director Jeannie Lopez to rethink some of the programs she offers.
"I'm going to scale back the music because I realize it can bother them," Lopez said. "This has been an eye-opening experience, and it will definitely change the way I look at and do things now."
Dementia is one of the world's fastest growing diseases with 24 million people currently diagnosed and the number expected to climb to 84 million by 2040.
"The intent is to understand what it's like to live in our patients' reality on a daily basis," said John Perkins, Sun City Senior Living executive director.
"I just want someone who is having a difficult time to say, 'I get it now.' "
Kathryn Moschella can be reached at email@example.com.