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Published in CenterView on May 13, 2013
Dana Roberts, accelerated degree student, completes a writing task during the Virtual Dementia Tour May 1.
Dana Roberts, accelerated degree student, completes a writing task during the Virtual Dementia Tour May 1.

School of Nursing students learn dementia’s challenges first-hand

By Matt Westerfield

Mary McNair remembers her mother as an “amazing lady who had a great sense of humor.” A sense of humor which helped her cope with Alzheimer’s disease.

McNair, assistant professor of nursing at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, said she cherishes the time she spent caring for her mother, but when she looks at pictures of herself from before and after that period, it’s clear how much the stress aged her.

Caring for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia is a skill forged through experience that can’t entirely be taught in a classroom. But students in the School of Nursing can now say they have a better appreciation for what those patients are going through, having walked a mile — or at least six minutes — in their shoes.

With help from the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, simulation center faculty in the SON led 81 traditional and 29 accelerated students on a “Virtual Dementia Tour,” a training experience allowing the students to feel what living with Alzheimer’s disease is like.

“Being able to dull the senses and put them through this kind of experience teaches (the students) to be more patient with their clients and more direct with their instructions,” McNair said. “That’s hard to teach in a lecture.”

During the April 30-May 1 exercise at the school, students were split into groups of six to don sensory-limiting equipment, which included spiked shoe inserts to simulate neuropathy, thick gloves to limit their dexterity, goggles to impair their vision and headphones to pound out distracting noises and alarming sounds.

“Some of those things are just chronic conditions that come with age,” said Melora Jackson, a gerontologist with the Mississippi Department of Mental Health. “Not everyone with dementia is going to have all of them, but most people will have some of them and some have all of them.”

Once impaired, the students quickly discovered how hard it was to follow a short list of instructions to complete mundane tasks. Inside a dimly lit room with flashing strobe lights, simple daily activities like folding towels and writing notes turned into struggles.

“People with Alzheimer’s disease often report seeing flashing lights in their peripheral vision,” Jackson said. They also have limited peripheral vision because the optic nerve is typically damaged, “so they startle easily. They also startle more at sounds.”

Jackson is a dementia care trainer with the state Department of Mental Health. The “virtual tour” system she brought to the SON was developed by Second Wind Dreams, a nonprofit organization committed to helping the elderly.

Jackson has used the training tool on high school students, police officers and first responders - in short, any group that may come in contact with dementia patients. Some 5.5 million people in America have Alzheimer’s disease, she said, and that’s not including other forms of dementia. By 2050, that number is expected to reach 16 million.

“This is going to impact every single one of us, whether you’re in nursing or not,” she said.

At the end of the six-minute exercise, most of the students were agitated, frustrated and disoriented.

“You were in that room for six minutes,” Jackson told the students during a discussion session afterward. “Imagine if that was your world 24/7 and you never got a break. Day and night.

“You behaved like people with dementia in just a short amount of time. If we had left you in the rooms longer, your behavior would’ve gotten more and more bizarre, I guarantee.”

Dr. Jan Cooper, associate professor of nursing and director of the Clinical Simulation Center, said the center has hosted several sensory-deprivation labs for students in the past. After seeing Jackson demonstrate the Virtual Dementia Tour at a conference last fall, she asked if she could let the SON students experience it.

“We want them to try to understand what it feels like to live with those problems, and how frustrating it can be when you don’t understand directions and when your mobility is impaired,” Cooper said. “We wanted the students to experience that so they could be more empathetic with the elder population.”

The students may have looked strange — even silly — in their sensory-impairing garb, but for all of them, the experience was sobering, Jackson said.

One of the tasks was for students to write a three-sentence note while impaired, parts of which Jackson read anonymously during the debriefing. One student’s note: “Mom, I finally have an idea of what Granny experiences. My hearing is effected (sic), my ability to concentrate is effected (sic). I look at things very different (sic) now.”

“I won’t say they enjoyed it,” Cooper said. “It was emotional for some students. But I think they understood it and appreciated it.”

Cooper said the faculty hope to make the tour available to students from all other schools on campus in the future.