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What is it like to be old?

“Virtual Dementia Tour” comes to Connecticut 


By Cindy Mindell

Former JFS president Lawrence Sheinman of Wilton (left) and JFS CEO Matt Greenberg attempt to complete their assigned activity during the Virtual Dementia Tour.

Former JFS president Lawrence Sheinman of Wilton (left) and JFS CEO Matt Greenberg attempt to complete their assigned activity
during the Virtual Dementia Tour.

STAMFORD – Demographic trends indicate that, by 2030, one-third of the world’s population will be over the age of 65, and many will reach their 80s and 90s. And yet, aging is not a topic easily discussed. Media representations of old age are often distorted, presenting stereotypical images of hardship-free “golden years” or infirmity-laden suffering.
The truth, of course, occupies a varied spectrum. But one common phenomenon that accompanies aging is Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. And though those who work with elders can be trained to manage the manifestations of such diseases, it’s difficult to know what it’s like to live with a loss of cognitive ability.
Last month, Jewish Family Service Home Companion program and Senior Services of Stamford offered those who work with elders the opportunity to better understand some of the health issues that come with aging. The Virtual Dementia Tour, designed by Second Wind Dreams, is a simulated interactive experience that mimics the challenges of memory loss, disorientation, and the overwhelming frustration of a senior with dementia.
Led by East Hartford-based certified Virtual Dementia Tour facilitator Jenna Sweet, some 60 participants – Home Companion aides and JFS staff and board members, as well as staff from other Stamford-area social-service agencies, family members of Home Companion clients, and journalists – “aged” for 30 minutes, experiencing the challenges that dementia creates for sufferers.
Participants attempted to navigate their way through basic tasks while wearing goggles that narrowed their field of vision, beaded shoe inserts that made walking uncomfortable, thick gloves that restricted their dexterity, and headphones emitting a mix of muted and indecipherable voices interrupted by sudden loud sounds such as slamming doors and emergency sirens.
Sweet then recited a list of basic tasks the participants were to complete, such as pouring a glass of water, writing a short letter, setting a table, or finding a specific page in a book.
The presentation also included basic information on the symptoms of early-, mid-, and late-stage Alzheimer’s and other dementia-like conditions, to help caregivers identify a developing problem. Signs of early-onset dementia are less pronounced, including slight forgetfulness and confusion while trying to accomplish simple tasks, Sweet said. As the disease worsens, communication can become more difficult as sufferers begin to experience trouble finding the appropriate word for a situation and might begin to lose language abilities. Finally, the sufferer loses much of his or her awareness of daily events, and has trouble recalling their family history or recognizing relatives.
To meet the new challenges as they arise, Sweet suggested that those caring for a person with dementia adopt an attitude of encouragement, offering praise rather than correction as the individual tries to complete tasks.
The JFS Home Companion service currently has some 100 home health aides working throughout western and mid-Fairfield County, providing assistance like grocery-shopping and transportation to doctor’s appointments, as well as bathing, dressing, and walking.
JFS offers a seven-week training program for home health aides, as well as several day-long in-service opportunities for certified aides and others in the healthcare industry.
“When we learned about the Virtual Dementia Tour, we thought it would offer something valuable in showing some of the discomfort and confusion people experience with dementia,” says Isrella Knopf, JFS director of senior services. “Caregivers can see how difficult it really is.”
The theme of the Virtual Dementia Tour is also at the center of “Dialogue with Time,” a first-ever interactive exhibition that deals with aging. On display at the Israeli Children’s Museum in Holon, Israel since September 2012, the groundbreaking exhibition allows visitors a glimpse into the world of the elderly. Docents are 70 and older, leading a creative, intergenerational dialogue with experiential play and the latest technology to help dispel stereotypes about aging.

For more information on the JFS Home Companion program email isrellak@ctjfs.org or call (203) 921-4161, ext. 114.

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