Just after Lisa Stephens finished a virtual-reality program simulating the most common aging problems, she stood at the brink of her most tender emotions.
“Well, that explains a lot of things,” said the business operations manager at Leisure Village Health Care Community. “Wow, I just had no idea.”
The session unlocked an understanding for Stephens, who said she is the caregiver for her mother, who has dementia and lives in her home.
Her mother rarely remembers her but always recognizes her siblings and children.
“My husband and I are ‘friends’ who are just helping her out,” she said. “She’s always introducing me to my daughter or sisters. We have some fun moments in there.”
Caregivers grab those moments because the rest can be trying and isolating.
Oklahoma ranks No. 9 in rate of family caregivers per capita, according to a report out in September by the AARP Public Policy Institute.
These caregivers need support for respite care and education about what their family members are going through.
Stephens said she understands the memory loss, but other physical problems and quirks didn’t always make sense. Like why her mom doesn’t turn on lights in a room or will occasionally withdraw from participating during family gatherings.
That’s what the Virtual Dementia Tour helps explain. It’s a program offered by Grace Hospice and developed by geriatric specialist P.K. Beville.
The experience includes elements to mimic common physical conditions experienced by many older people.
This includes a rubber insert for a shoe sole for the sensation of neuropathy; gloves limiting mobility for arthritis; specialized glasses for macular degeneration and glaucoma; and a headset for hearing loss and inability to discriminate various sounds.
Once a person is equipped with all these devices, a room is set up for the individual to complete various everyday tasks.
It may be impossible for a virtual-reality program to cause a person to lose memory of loved ones or common items. But this experience puts behavior into context.
If a person has trouble finding words or expressing thoughts, it becomes even more frustrating dealing with these aging physical obstacles. It leads to those odd behaviors.
“I didn’t think to turn on the light because I couldn’t see well, and the sounds were so disorienting. I really just forgot about it,” Stephens said. “Then some sounds would make me jump, just like Mom sometimes does.
“It really shows how you can’t come up behind a person like that. It would be too scary. Right now, Mom has a fear to be alone at night, so maybe this is all part of it. Her fear means I don’t go anywhere in the evenings.”
In going through the virtual tour, I first focused on the little spikes of pain in my feet. Others didn’t seem as bothered, but I clutched at the bar along a hallway wall and sat down as much as possible.
The eyeglasses dulled colors and blurred much of my sight. When asked to find a white sweater, it was difficult to differentiate hues.
In attempting to put on a jacket, the limitations in my hands and lack of good vision led me to just give up. I ended up wrapping a nightgown around my shoulders.
A headset played tracks of noises normally happening in a room. These included conversations, doors closing, a bell going off and traffic outside.
It was too confusing to follow any of the voices. Some sounds were muted and others popped out.
After a while, I just stopped listening and focused on other tasks, such as setting a table, pouring water, writing a note and folding towels.
That is why some older people may be quiet while sitting in a corner or off to the side. It’s just hard to pay attention to a whole scene.
None of my tasks were done well, but a lot of concentration got half the job done.
When trying to write three messages, that’s when it occurred to me how psychologically hard it is to deal with these obstacles.
Reading and writing have been a lifelong skill and joy. To lose that ability would lead to a serious depression.
The U.S. and Oklahoma must confront the reality of our aging populations.
In Oklahoma, the population of 85-year-olds and older will grow by 38 percent in the next 12 years, according to the AARP report.
The same report found Oklahoma’s nursing home system has poor quality indicators, too many people with low-care needs in long-term care (ranked No. 2) and 70 percent of Medicaid spending going to long-term institutions rather than less expensive home- and community-based services.
Going through the virtual program is a reminder of why improving this system is crucial.
It’s the morally right thing to do, as well as being fiscally responsible.
“This virtual tour is to help bring empathy,” said Patti Zeimet-Jones, Grace Hospice staff development liaison. “We want people to understand what it is like to be in their shoes.”