Five little tasks in eight minutes. Seemed simple enough.
Things like fold towels, put on a sweater, drink half a cup of water, clear the table, find a necktie.
No big deal, right? But now add spiked inserts in your shoes, blurry goggles, clumsy gloves and headphones putting staticky radio and random noise into year ears.
With all that going on, you might just put that cardigan on upside down.
Nothing can re-create the horror that is Alzheimer’s, which now affects 5.6 million Americans.
But at Villa Ventura, a senior living community in south Kansas City, employees are at least getting a sense of what victims of the disease can feel. A pretty good sense, too, apparently — because the experience can plop a perfectly stable person onto the edge of a bed, lost, mind racing and fretful about what to do next.
“I couldn’t remember anything I was supposed to do,” Robert Minton, a van driver at the center, said after his turn at Virtual Dementia Tour, a hands-on trip into the dark world of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
“I didn’t like it,” he added. “Eight minutes? Seemed like 30. I wanted it to end. I had to get out of there.”
Villa Ventura thinks it is the first senior community in the Kansas City area to use the system developed by a geriatric specialist and gaining popularity around the country. Villa Ventura’s plan is to open it up to family members of its dementia patients.
“Our employees see the pacing and frustration and exasperation every day,” said Sarah Miller, the center’s assisted living director who helped lead Tuesday’s session. “If this helps them understand it a little better, then it’s a good thing.”
First off, Minton and others in his group “garbed” up. Plastic inserts with little sharp spikes into his shoes to create the “needles and pins” and neuropathy that affect many seniors. Rubber gloves with cloth gloves over them for the arthritis effect. Goggles to give everything a yellow tint, and a dot in the middle to simulate macular degeneration.
Finally, headphones with loud clutter — static-edged radio, car horns, door slams.
A worker then led Minton into a small apartment with ambient light only.
“Robert,” she told him just inside the door as she read from a piece of paper, “I want you find the white sweater and put it on, write a three-sentence note to your family and put it in the envelope, set the table for four, fold all the towels and fill a cup halfway with water and drink it.
“Your time starts now.”
With feet hurting, blurred vision and random noise in his ear, Minton made his way into the bedroom, where he found a jumble of clothes on the bed. He picked through the heap, holding up a dress shirt, pants, a kid’s shirt, a sweatshirt, until he finally found the white sweater. He pulled it on. Upside down, at first.
He went to the living room where he located paper and pencil, and scribbled a quick note.
Others in the group followed. Similar tasks: “Put the belt through the loops on the pants, match six pairs of socks, clear the table, draw a picture of your family, find the necktie and put it on.”
Minton had started to set the table, but stopped halfway through and put a hand to his forehead. He got the drink of water, then began to pace, sighed heavily and gestured that he had no idea what to do next.
“Robert, you’re doing great,” the worker told him. “You have four more things to do and they are written on the wall.”
He found the instructions, but some letters were bigger than others. A few words were missing.
Minton gave up.
But he did as well as others. One woman — without being told to — put on a shirt, took it off and then put in on again. She also found two stuffed bears and set them in a chair at the kitchen table.
When asked later why she did that, Faye Chapman, another of the center’s drivers, shook her head: “I have no idea.”
As fast as one person set the table, another took things away.
They all talked to themselves.
During a debriefing afterward, Vickie Strawder, the center’s assisted-living activities director who served as a “tour” guide for half the group, said one of the men in her charge quit.
“All of mine quit,” said Miller, who handled the other half.
“I forgot everything I was supposed to do,” one in the group said.
Diamond Acklin, a medication technician, nodded.
“I did, too,” she said. “Too many things going on. I couldn’t think straight.”
It’s hard. May not sound like it. It is.
Virtual Dementia Tour was developed by P.K. Beville, a geriatric specialist who also founded Second Wind Dreams, a nonprofit group that works to help the elderly.
Dementia is a problem that professionals say will only increase in coming years as baby boomers age. Currently, one in eight persons over 65 lives with Alzheimer’s. More women than men, probably because women live longer.
At Villa Ventura, in the 12100 block of Wornall Road, employees see pacing, confusion, anxiousness, inability to perform simple tasks, answering the door naked, getting up at 3 a.m., and calling vulgar names.
“You can look at these people every day,” said Jeremy Constance, the center’s food and beverage director, “but you can’t feel what they are feeling until you walk in their shoes.”
For now, the closest to those are the shoes with the sharp spikes inside.