A Virtual Dementia Tour

Ever wonder what it’s like to have dementia, or what is commonly referred to as Alzheimer’s? Three weeks ago I got a taste of it while attending the national conference for non-profit senior housing providers, Leading Age, in Nashville, Tennessee.

In one corner of the vast exhibit hall was a small trailer housing a ‘Virtual Dementia Tour’ sponsored by Second Wind Dreams®. From their website (www.secondwind.org), one will learn that their mission is ‘to change the perception of aging through the fulfillment of dreams and the offering of innovative educational opportunities to caregivers and communities’. They provide the ‘Virtual Dementia Tour’ which is noted as a scientifically proven method designed to increase sensitivity toward those with dementia.

After having designed several environments for people living with dementia, it seemed only appropriate that this architect take the tour, which I did with much anticipation.

I was given a quick questionnaire inquiring how I felt about people living with dementia. From there, I was adorned with plastic gloves, which were then covered by knit garden gloves. I was also afforded foot inserts (not comfortable), smudged sunglasses with a black spot over the left eye, and head phones blaring background noise (annoying and confusing).

Before the headphones were placed over my ears, the escort informed me I would be given five tasks to complete when I entered the trailer, and would have eight minutes to complete the tasks. That was it, five simple tasks. Unfortunately, they were not given to me in writing, nor given to me before I entered the trailer, or before the headphones were in place.

After the headphones were fixed on my head, I was escorted into the trailer, which was outfitted like a 100 SF living/dining room. THEN she verbally communicated the five tasks. No chance for repeating them…. that was it. And then she left.
I noticed a person sitting at a table, writing. Could I ask her if I forgot the tasks? I didn’t know, and figured I just better start knocking them out. My first recollection was to find a white sweater and put it on. Seemed like a simple task, but I had no idea where it would be. As I searched a cabinet, I noticed tableware, and remembered instructions to set the table. So I did my best to take the plastic dinnerware to the table and set down what I could in the clear space available.

At the time I was setting the table, I noticed paper and a pen, and remembered the instructions to write a three sentence letter which I proceeded to do before I forgot the task. Once finished with my chicken scratch, I got back up looking for the sweater when suddenly sirens erupted in my headphones. Was this real or part of the tour? They eventually went away, but still I had no luck finding the sweater.

During my search I found a basket with what appeared to be laundry, and remembered the instructions to fold the laundry. As I was folding, others began entering the room, bumping into me, and searching as I had done. As I was finishing my laundry folding task, my escort came in and rescued me from this virtual hell. Three for five, I guess that’s not bad for being 45, healthy and “with it”. Take the tour, and see how you do (www.secondwind.org ).

Scott Likins, AIA, LEED AP
Director Senior Living Design Group

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