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Sensory 'Tour' Helps People Walk In The (Uncomfortable) Shoes Of Those With Dementia

dementia tour
(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Allyson Blondell wore headphones, sunglasses and gloves during the Virtual Dementia Tour.

It can be hard to relate to someone who has dementia, whether that’s Alzheimer's or another form.

It’s not something we can see, and it might be tough for the person experiencing it to explain what they’re going through. That’s why a retirement community in Phoenix hosted what they call a Virtual Dementia Tour earlier Tuesday, in hopes of helping people understand what the condition is like to live with.

“You won’t get hurt, you won’t get mentally altered or anything like that, but I’m going to make you have dementia for like 10 minutes.”

That’s how Dannis Murphy introduced the Virtual Dementia Tour. Murphy is the program manager for the memory support program at The Terraces retirement community. He works with residents who live with dementia. Tuesday he worked with some staff members and family members of residents.

“So first we’re going to put in the shoe inserts, pokey side up,” Murphy instructed.

The tour focused on altering the senses, so we put on glasses that make it tough to see, shoe inserts that make it tough to walk, gloves that make it tough to use your hands, and headphones, connected to an iPod that plays sounds like white noise and murmuring.

“You will be asked to perform five simple tasks,” Murphy said.

We entered an apartment, and Murphy listed off what I needed to do.

“Find the book and turn to page 73, set the dinner table for four,” he said.

It’s slow-going, and suddenly it seems daunting to do five small things in 10 minutes. 

“It was very challenging,” said Allyson Blondell after she finished her tasks.

Blondell is an activity coordinator at The Terraces, and says the tour helped her think of how she might interact with residents differently in the future.

“Take more time and allow those with dementia longer time that was needed to carry out a simple task,” she said.

Dannis Murphy wants the tour to build empathy for those living with dementia. I point out to him that the tour just affects the senses; I’m still me under the gloves and headphones. But he says you can look at dementia the same way.

“Every dementia resident is different. There is no one dementia,” he said. “Every individual has their own likes, dislikes, different symptoms of where the dementia is hitting in the brain. So it’s going to be different no matter who you are.”

That’s also what makes it so hard to recognize dementia in the first place, if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Carol Melillo said she had no idea her mother-in-law had it when she was caring for her.

“We flew blind for too long,” she said. 

It was an emotional experience. Melillo said her mother-in-law was saying and doing strange things that she didn’t know how to deal with.

“Looking back, had we known what was going on, we could’ve dealt with it in a far more objective, efficient, helpful way,” Melillo said.

Even though the people who took the tour, like Melillo, are already familiar with dementia on some level, Murphy said there’s a difference between knowing and experiencing.

“And that’s it, the immediate wow factor is the huge thing, because ‘I had no idea they heard all this, I had no idea they felt this, I had no idea how confused you can be with all the stuff going on’,” he said. 

That wow factor does fade with time, so he plans to bring the tour back to The Terraces every couple of years.

Annika Cline was a producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2014 to 2019.