10 minutes of virtual dementia leaves a lasting impression

Covenant Alzheimer's Services virtual dementia tour was part of the Art of Aging exhibit. Photo credit: Mandy Fernandez.

A colleague invited me to attend the University of West Florida Center on Aging’s “Art Across the Ages” event on June 26.

Part of the event included a simulator of what it feels like to be a patient with Alzheimer’s disease.

This “Virtual Dementia Tour” was coordinated by Covenant Alzheimer’s Services in Pensacola, a partner with UWF Center on Aging. The tour was founded by P.K. Beville and is part of Second Wind Dreams, an international, nonprofit organization dedicated to changing the perception of aging.

I signed up for the tour because of the way dementia has touched my life. My two grandmothers were believed to have had dementia. My parents and in-laws are aging, and I wanted to know the signs of Alzheimer’s disease to be alert for. I also recently completed a health communications class at UWF that piqued my curiosity about the care of senior citizens.
I felt nervous in the orientation room before I even began.

First I had to take off my shoes and put clear, spiky inserts in them. When I stood up, I felt like I was walking on toothpicks beneath my feet.

Next I had to put on two sets of gloves, a plastic pair followed by a thicker pair. Immediately I could feel the blood flow leaving my hands and the prickly feeling of numbness set in.

I had to wear goggles that distorted my vision. I could barely focus. When I did manage to zone in, a black circle obstructed most of my view.

Finally, I had to wear earphones that blared muffled voices, car chasing sounds, sirens, and other sounds I had trouble understanding.

A volunteer led me to another room where the dementia simulation took place. The young man spoke to me. I assume he was trying to prepare me for what was ahead or give me specific instructions. However, I could not hear him clearly nor see him in focus to read his lips. So I walked half-blindly into the room.

I could make out the outlines of objects — chairs, tables, linens and other things. I tried to peer around but it was difficult to see and read words on the wall. As I was walking around, my feet began to hurt from those spiky inserts. I was soon startled by loud noises coming through my earphones, including an ambulance shrieking and a door slamming which made me spill water.

As I attempted to grab objects on the table, I had complications using my hands and folding my fingers. The double layer of gloves prohibited me from good mobility. The lights in the room would flash at times, taking me back to my short years of visiting music clubs in my early twenties.

Is this what it is like daily for patients experiencing dementia? Pain, sensory overload, inability to see clearly, loud noises, trouble with walking, using hands and even moving around? For many of them, yes this is how they live. That is the point of this virtual experience.

The tour lasted 10 minutes but it felt like a half-hour. Two hours after my drill I still had ringing in my ears and a slight headache. In fact I had lingering moments of that dementia “hangover” well into the night.

For many dementia patients, however, that is life. All day. Every day.
Until we’ve walked into a patient’s shoes, virtual ones or otherwise, we cannot grasp the daunting daily routine a dementia patient faces.

Beville advises simple steps to help dementia patients and their caregivers build a safe, healthy environment:

— Give them more time for tasks.

— Minimize noises.

— Repeat instructions.

— Treat concerns as a learning tool.

— Allow repetition.

That tour experience will stay with this 36-year-old for a long time to come, making me more sensitive to those suffering with these physical and mental symptoms in the future.

Mandy B. Fernandez is a writer living in Pensacola. She writes creatively and professionally on topics such as business, education, creative arts, health, family life, parenting and natural foods.  She is working on her first children’s book. You can learn more about her at