Virtual reality tour participants get a taste of life with dementia

Amber Foster, right, executive director of Commonwealth Senior Living at Front Royal, guides Lt. Charles Brogan of the Warren County Sheriff's Office as he participates in the Second Wind Dreams Virtual Dementia Tour on Tuesday at the senior living facility in Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL — Donielle Weatherholtz-Palmer, the director of resident services at Shenandoah Valley Westminster Canterbury in Winchester, deals regularly with people who have dementia as part of her job. So she wanted to introduce her staff to something called a “virtual dementia tour.”

The program, which was created by the nonprofit Second Wind Dreams, aims to simulate the experience of living with dementia by having participants try to complete simple tasks under a set of constraints. The participants wear headphones that make distracting sounds, gloves that mimic arthritis and glasses that make it difficult to see.

Weatherholtz-Palmer said that the program could help her staff understand what it is like to have dementia.

“The more we know, the better education we have, the better we’re able to serve our community,” Weatherholtz-Palmer said.

On Tuesday, Weatherholtz-Palmer went with Sarah Greathouse, a clinical educator at Westminster Canterbury, to Commonwealth Senior Living at Front Royal to try the dementia tour firsthand.

Donielle Weatherholtz-Palmer, left, director of residence services at Westminster Canterbury in Winchester, puts on special gloves as she and Sarah Greathouse, clinical educator at Winchester Canterbury, suit up for the dementia simulator at Commonwealth Senior Living at Front Royal. Rich Cooley/Daily

Weatherholtz-Palmer and Greathouse both described their experience as aggravating.

Their headphones produced loud, distracting noises throughout the tour, occasionally startling them.

“It drove me crazy,” Greathouse said.

And it was hard for them to understand what they were supposed to be doing. At the beginning of the tour, Amber Foster, the executive director of Commonwealth Senior Living at Front Royal, gave them some vague instructions.

But Weatherholtz-Palmer said that despite the instructions, she didn’t know what to do.

“We just stood there for such a long time,” Weatherholtz-Palmer said.

After going through the tour herself, Weatherholtz-Palmer said that it reminded her of the importance of being patient and communicating with residents who have dementia.

“Persons living with dementia, you need direction,” Weatherholtz-Palmer said.

Charles Brogan, a lieutenant for the Warren County Sheriff’s Office who also went through the dementia tour, similarly got a sense of how important patience is.

For Brogan, the distracting noises and the loss of vision made it hard to focus on any tasks he was assigned.

“You couldn’t hear …the list of instructions,” Brogan said.

Because of the difficulty he had, the experience helped instill in Brogan the importance of having patience.

“They may not be hearing, seeing, understanding what you’re talking about, asking them to do,” Brogan said.

Melissa Garber, a resident care associate at Commonwealth Senior Living at Front Royal, said that the tour helps participants understand why people with dementia act the way they do. Directions that most people can understand are often hard for people with dementia to grasp — either because of how the disease is affecting their brain or because of things like vision loss or arthritis that frequently come with old age.

“You kind of talk to [people with dementia] and they don’t respond and you’re wondering why,” Garber said. “Until you do that tour and you kind of understand.”

Foster, the executive director of Commonwealth Senior Living at Front Royal, said that she wanted the dementia tour to help people view people who have dementia “from different eyes.”

On Monday, 32 staff members at the Front Royal center went through the dementia tour. Foster said she opened the tour to all staff members, from cleaners to caregivers.

She had community members, like members of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office and caregivers, take the tour on Tuesday.

Foster said that she hopes to have another dementia tour in the fall, planning to host the tours quarterly for community members to attend. She said that she particularly hopes to see first responders and dentists attend the tours, because both professions require interacting with and assisting elderly people.