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Virtual dementia tour -- add another media-friendly age simulator to the Age Suit

My Google blogger alerts have been blinking and beeping about the Virtual Dementia Tour, an offering from a non-profit called Second Wind Dreams. Profit from the sale of the kit (for professionals or individual caregivers) goes to programs that Second Wind Dreams sponsors -- a charity to boost focus and perception about residents in long-term care facilities. Sounds good. Nothing negative about the mission of Second Wind Dreams.The simulator kit, though, reminded me of the MIT AgeLab suit a young person can put on to 'experience' what it is like to feel old, under the theory that this may stimulate innovation among researchers.

  • Virtual Dementia Tour Kit. For those who haven't heard of it: The Virtual Dementia Tour Kit ($56), was developed by Second Wind Dreams, a US charity that aims to improve perceptions about those with dementia and training staff to work with the elderly. The kit consists of some distorting goggles and a tape playing confusing sounds, and a set of tasks to accomplish with vision reduced and perceptions altered. "It may sound primitive, but volunteers who try to follow instructions start behaving like people with dementia, muttering to themselves and doing things like putting a towel around their shoulders when they are unable to find a jumper. They know they have got the wrong item, but somehow doing something makes them feel calmer, says P. K. Beville, Second Wind Dreams' founder. The kit helps carers understand behaviors that they find frustrating, but which help people cope with dementia," she says. And from one who tried it: 'The tearful director of a nursing home said she had a lot of apologies to make.' " Presumably to her residents.
  • Age Lab age simulator suit. Then there's the MIT AgeLab simulator suit which slows one down to the feel of someone age 70, then the wearer struggles into a million-dollar driving simulator called "Miss Daisy." As a Fox news reporter learns, this "science experiment allowing those who wear it to feel what it is like to be 70 years old. The suit is equipped with elastic bands, and a neck brace to restrict movement, in ways that mirror arthritis. The glasses are worn to diminish vision and gloves are worn to diminish touch. The shoes simulate Nueropathy or loss of feeling in a type two diabetic’s feet. At the end, our reporter observes that "old age is not easy."

So someone has got to say it, and I guess I am just grumpy enough to be the one. Putting goggles on, listening to a confusing tape, or struggling to move under a weighty age simulator suit -- these are the vehicles made for TV journalists, especially young ones -- who specialize in writing about a new 'experience'. But in my jaundiced view, these are distractions:

  • If the head of a nursing home is in tears over using a dementia simulator, imagine how tearful she might become if she spent more time one-on-one with her residents. Maybe first, of course, becoming trained and certified in geriatric training programs that teach new administrators how to engage those with dementia. That way, residents could get more out of the day-to-day experience of living in a nursing home, beyond being parked in the hall or in front of an always-on TV. 
  • The media noise about this 'kit' also mentions educating family members about those in their family who may have dementia, perhaps linking use of the simulator to a possible reduction in elder abuse.  I will be waiting to read that study.
  • And I am really discouraged at the thought that young researchers need to put on a suit to improve the lives of seniors, especially when it comes to driving. Of course, why should we be surprised, when BMW could produce the impenetrable iDrive controls a few years back -- guess they didn't yet have access to the suit.

To net out my take on this (this is a blog, after all): Simulators like these are patronizing and problem-minimizing distractions from creating really helpful solutions based on observation and knowledge. The world of innovation is an amazing place -- where imagination and ideas spawn products (like Audiallo for hearing aids) that are developed and then tested with real people.  No need for media-friendly simulation -- no need to personally simulate deafness to understand and provide help to those who have difficulty hearing. No need to try tasks with goggles on and racket in your ears to know that confusion is disorienting and frightening. You just have to watch the faces of people who have dementia to get it.

Watch. Think. Design. Learn. Help.   Less media, more benefit.

Post script on 7/7/09:

It's been a bad month for seniors. The accidents are sad, but the press is also troublesome -- driving accidents among seniors seem to have boosted interest in the 'age simulator' suit. It is catching on with reporters who are seizing an opportunity to whip up some interest in 'describing how the suit helps with 'feeling the effects of aging' on driving and, therefore, interest in mandatory road tests. Let's see some analysis of traffic fatalities by age group -- from my casual searches, teenagers dominate. Then there are drunk drivers, and unlicensed drivers...

If insurance companies like Liberty Mutual screened driver risk out by age group, population segment, and history of behaviors and it was difficult to buy a car without a license, there would be far fewer drivers on the road.









Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the Virtual Dementia Tour. I would like to add the following:
Latest Media Review on Virtual Dementia Tour™:

ABC Nightline Features the Virtual Dementia Tour (follow this link http://abcnews.go.com/Primetime/AlzheimersNews/story?id=7961176&page=1)

Watch ABC Nightline co-anchor Cynthia McFadden participate in the Virtual Dementia Tour; an experience that in Cynthia’s own words “changed my life forever”. For additional information on how you or your organization can obtain a copy of this amazing “life changing” program – experienced by over 10,000 dementia caregivers! – please visit our website at www.secondwind.org.

The Virtual Dementia Tour™ is now available in both Group and Individual Editions! The VDT™ is a dementia simulation tool kit created for anyone seeking to understand the physical and mental challenges of those with Dementia. Experienced by over 10,000 family and professional caregivers, these unique, interactive products have been proven to improve communication and care. Proceeds from the purchase of any kits in this series go toward the fulfillment of dreams for residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

It's an honor to be compared to an MIT program. Although I've not personally experienced the MIT Age Suit, I would welcome the opportunity! As a caregiver working in the Elder Care business for over 25 years, I have personally seen the Virtual Dementia Tour change the attitude of some of the sharpest healthcare providers. I actually felt as though it wouldn't have an impact on me because I had worked with dementia residents for so long - but after the tour, I was amazed at what I didn't know. It changed me forever and I can say without reservation that anyone working with elders in any capacity, would benefit from this experience. Community service individuals such as firemen and policemen, could also benefit in a big way!

Again, thank you for blogging on this subject. It's great to have someone out there watching those google topics beeping & blinking - and it's great that the VDT has made them blink even brighter and beep even louder!

From Second Wind Dreams
Laurie Labishak


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