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Virtual tour allows participants to experience the realities of dementia

SPRING HILL

Dianne Cox pawed frantically through a rumpled pile of laundry, pitching pieces to the floor while searching for a white sweater, mumbling to herself all the while.

A seemingly lost Mario Girgis paced the hallway, reaching to feel every wall, even overhead, as if searching for a way out.

Samantha Prewitt circled in place, palms outstretched, shrugging her shoulders in confusion as she tried to recall what she had set out to do.

Each of the volunteers, garbed head to foot in novel devices that impinged train of thought and physical acuity, was experiencing the realities of dementia.

The results weren't pretty.

The trio was among some 50 persons who stepped up recently for the first public Virtual Dementia Tour inside a converted RV where scientific research is transposed into real-life encounters with the affliction.

The program and mobile unit are funded by Glen Scharfeld, franchise owner of Senior Helpers, a non-medical home care agency in Spring Hill whose 150 caregivers often deal with clients who have dementia.

The tour and the mobile unit are industry firsts, to be made available throughout the area "to educate and give back to the community," Scharfeld said. "One in four families are touched by dementia," and many families don't know how to deal with it, he said.

On hand for the initial rollout at the Residence at Timber Pines, geriatric specialist P.K. Beville of Atlanta, the author and inventor of the patented program, explained that with dementia, brain cells die, impairing a person's ability to think and carry out many tasks of everyday living.

Trying to cope with a garbled brain, even during the brief tour, fosters new empathy and an understanding of the often frustrating, anxious and angry behavior of those with dementia and of those around them, Beville said.

Said Senior Helpers' Bill Tuttle: "Until you're placed in their world, you can't understand it."

The virtual walk-through aims to teach.

"It all boils down to what would help you do those tasks and what you'd do for the demented person," Beville said.

In the encounter, the participants were outfitted with devices to mimic common limitations of mid-level dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Goggles blocked out peripheral vision; earphones delivered extraneous sounds; oversized gloves limited dexterity; ridged shoe inserts made walking painful.

In a rapid voice, a guide assigned each volunteer five common household tasks — for instance, finding and putting on that white sweater from the laundry, removing and counting pennies from a jar, setting a dinner table for four, inserting a belt through loops in a waistband, pairing up a dozen socks.

Throughout, a trained observer followed each, jotting down their behaviors.

Cox, director of development at the Residence at Timber Pines, yanked on the sweater, then commenced nonsense muttering.

"Those with dementia will talk to themselves," Beville pointed out.

As Girgis, 31, a community liaison with Horizon Homecare in Spring Hill, wandered about, and Beville tut-tutted, "He's totally lost. He has not a clue what to do."

Prewitt, 32, nurse liaison with Senior Helpers in Largo, studied a wall placard listing chores, hoping for a hint at her assignments, which she couldn't remember from a minute ago. The reading didn't help. The list appeared garbled in half phrases, just as a demented mind would interpret it, Beville explained.

Debriefed after their eight-minute ordeals, some tour-takers heard of behaviors they didn't realize they'd acted out.

"They told me I was running. Hmm," Cox said, surprised.

Some expressed eureka-like understandings.

"I had family members with dementia, and I didn't know how they'd feel," Girgis said, adding emphatically, "But now, I do."

Prewitt, knowledgeable of the "technical stuff" and common medication of dementia patients, grasped an alternative.

"I learned that it's very aggravating, and aggravating because I didn't know what to do," she said. "This shows us a definite approach as opposed to medication."

Debriefer Michael Dumbrell of Senior Helpers noted other reactions.

"They're in shock," he said. "I've heard, 'This isn't what I thought it was like.' ... 'This was terrible.' ... 'I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy.'"

Beville, 62, has been studying dementia since 1983 as a clinical psychologist.

"The reason people have been unable to treat those with dementia is because (none of the caregivers) has had dementia," she said. She set out to simulate the outcomes of cognitive decline.

The Virtual Dementia Tour mobile unit will be made available to civic organizations, churches, hospitals and other entities willing to host its appearance. It will be provided free to churches and nonprofessional organizations or for a small fee to businesses and professional groups, Scharfeld said.

The unit is based at Senior Helpers, 246 Mariner Blvd., Spring Hill.

Contact Beth Gray at graybethn@earthlink.net.

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