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Dementia simulation lab helps VCSU students understand the disease

Carrie Snyder / Forum News Service Katie Woehl, assistant professor in psychology, left, has Danae Knapper put on gear before she goes through the Virtual Dementia Tour at Valley City State University.

VALLEY CITY, N.D. — Wearing yellowed goggles and bumpy gloves, Danae Knapper tries to complete five household tasks, but she can’t remember the fifth one.

Confused, the 21-year-old Valley City State University junior wanders around the bedroom of an apartment on the first floor of McCoy Hall trying to remember what it was.

“Oh man, I know I was supposed to do some other stuff,” she says after stuffing a pillow into a blue pillowcase.

Knapper is one of about 40 students who have participated in Katie Woehl’s dementia simulation lab as part of the professor’s 300-level abnormal psychology class.

A geriatric specialist developed the lab, called the Virtual Dementia Tour and distributed by nonprofit Second Wind Dreams, to give people an idea of what it’s like to live with the disease and other symptoms common in older patients.

The goggles imitate yellowing of the eyes and macular degeneration; the gloves mimic tingling and numbness in the hands. An iPod plays a continual “confusion track” that sounds like an out-of-tune talk-radio station. Shoe inserts simulate nerve pain, corns and bunions.

“The kit really allows you to sort of ‘feel’ some of those symptoms and put yourself in that person’s shoes and develop some of the empathy for somebody living with it,” Woehl said.

She said a student who had worked with the elderly for 10-plus years had always felt sympathy for them, but that changed to empathy after she completed the exercise.

Another said she felt bad for any joke she had ever made about seniors.

Woehl first saw the Virtual Dementia Tour on ABC’s talk show “The Doctors” and thought it would be an effective supplement to her students’ textbook studies.

The experience made Knapper, a transfer student and human services major, think of her great-grandmother with dementia.

“I wish I would’ve done this three years ago, when she couldn’t figure out what you were saying or she couldn’t remember what you just said. It would have probably given me a little more patience with her,” she said.

After removing the impairment aids and sitting down at the kitchen table, she said anyone with a family member with dementia or Alzheimer’s should have to try it.

Fellow VCSU junior Scott Westby doesn’t know anyone with dementia, but he hopes he’ll remember the experience in the future.

“It kind of gave me a new perspective on what they experience every day, and we only did it for 10 minutes,” said the social science education major.

Although everyone handles the experience differently, Woehl’s students tend to exhibit similar behaviors. They talk to themselves, laugh nervously, wander around and complete tasks they weren’t asked to do.

“I talked to myself quite a bit —‘What am I doing?’ ‘OK, what’s next?’ — as a defense mechanism,” Westby said.

Woehl hopes the lab, in its second semester, helps students understand some of the reasons behind the behaviors.

“Grampa’s not just wandering around because he’s not thinking about anything. It’s that he’s got so much going on that he can’t put the pieces together the way he used to,” she said.

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