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News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, May 29, 2014
Technology lets Island Nursing Home staff experience effects of dementia

by Rich Hewitt

In the novel To Kill a Mocking Bird, Scout’s father Atticus says something to the effect that you never really understand a person until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.

That’s difficult to do for most people, especially if you’re trying to understand a person who is afflicted by dementia or other effects of aging.

But, the Island Nursing Home has adopted technology that allows staff members to experience first-hand the physical and mental effects that result from dementia. And they hope to make the experience available to the general public later this summer.

The Virtual Dementia Tour (VDT) was developed by Second Wind Dreams, a non-profit organization in Marietta, Ga., that for the past 17 years has worked to improve the perception of aging and to fulfill individual dreams of the older people they work with.

The VDT is an effective tool that allows people to experience how dementia affects a person’s ability to deal with every-day tasks and how that diminished ability can affect their behavior, according to Joan Bothwell, the INH social services director.

“Our purpose is to educate the staff so that they perceive what it is our residents experience,” Bothwell said.

Because of the different physical and cognitive changes that take place in older residents living with dementia, it is important to recognize different stressors that can affect their behavior and to understand the intention of those behaviors, she said.

“There are clues. Acting out can be a reaction to pain or to being confused or not understanding what they are being asked to do,” according to Bothwell. “The tour is designed to sensitize the staff to what a person dealing with cognitive loss is experiencing and how that impacts how they behave throughout the day.”

The VDT is a 20-minute, one-on-one guided tour which uses technology and equipment to simulate the physical and cognitive effects of dementia. The subject is directed to complete five different activities of daily living. At the end, there is a debriefing to talk about the experience.

Thus far, almost all of the staff members have taken the tour, Bothwell said, and the reaction has been very positive.

“The staff has been hugely positive,” she said. “They say things like ‘it’s an eye-opener,’ or ‘it’s a game-changer.’ One staff member said ‘I’m going to treat them [residents] a lot better now.’ They seem to understand a little better what it’s like to walk in their shoes.”

The tour is so effective, she added, that new staff will be required to take the tour when they start working at the nursing home. It is such a good tool that INH wants to make the experience available to the general public.

Bothwell said that it would be a good experience for anyone working in health care, in a hospital or assisted living situation, but added that it would be particularly helpful for new care givers.

“We hope to get people who are care givers, especially those who are care givers for someone who is newly diagnosed and they’re wondering what do to and what is papa going through,” she said.

INH has scheduled two public sessions of the virtual dementia tour at the nursing home, from 6-8 p.m. on Thursday, June 19, and from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday, June 20. The tour takes about 20 minutes plus time afterward for a debriefing. Bothwell recommends making an appointment ahead of time so they can know how full the sessions will be.

For more information or to schedule a time for the tour, contact Bothwell at 348-6517.