By Teddy Jacobsen
The local retirement community, Kendal at Lexington, is giving people the opportunity to virtually experience the life-changing challenges of dementia starting this spring.
The Virtual Dementia Tour was created by the international nonprofit organization Second Wind Dreams. Trained facilitators guide participants through everyday activities with devices that alter their senses.
Katie Harlow, the resident life program director at Kendal, said the goal is to show people firsthand the challenges those with dementia face, both mentally and physically.
“They just can’t tell you what it’s like,” Harlow said. “To even get a glimpse into what dementia is like, it changes your whole perspective and gives you so much more empathy.”
Kendal received a $23,000 grant last July from the Rockbridge Community Health Foundation to develop its dementia programs. Harlow said that money goes to information sessions about handling dementia and developing the virtual experience.
Harlow, who is a certified trainer for the virtual tour, said about 40 Kendal staff members have done the simulation.
This spring, she said members of Lexington’s police and fire departments plan to participate in the virtual program and the information session. She also said Kendal is setting dates around the same time for a community event for anyone to experience the virtual tour.
Nathan Ramsey, the Rockbridge County fire-rescue chief, said handling people with dementia takes acute awareness and patience. He said situations involving people with dementia do not always require medical treatment.
“Educating people outside the medical world about dementia helps bystanders be more aware of all its possibilities,” Ramsey said.
He said people with dementia are less likely to experience an episode in the first place if the community takes the time to understand its effects and make public spaces easier to navigate. For example, restaurants can brighten its lights or put up more signs directing people to bathrooms.
According to the CDC, around 10% of adults ages 65 and older in the United States have some form of dementia. The most common type is Alzheimer’s disease.
Dementia is a general term used to characterize the impaired ability to think, remember or make decisions in everyday life. It is not a specific disease in itself.
“The only people that are experts on dementia are the people that have it,” Harlow said.
This month, Kendal passed out resource bags to the police and fire departments with non-medical items for handling situations involving people with dementia. Included in the bags are things like notepads and communication cards in case a person is unable to verbally communicate their needs.
Harlow said Kendal collaborates with the Valley Program for Aging Services in Buena Vista, which also started a dementia program at its Maury River Senior Center. She said the two organizations are working together to facilitate each groups’ respective programs, including the virtual tour.