Parker Offers Virtual Dementia Tour to First Responders

By Fern Marder

Standing from left: Detective Mark Zeno from the Woodbridge Police Department, Patrolman Dean Petrillo, Lieutenant Anthony Crisafulli, and Captain Michael McLaughlin from the Piscataway Police Department. Seated from left: Meghan McFadden and Jasmine Pagan from the Office of the Middlesex County Prosecutor.

Many of us are aware of family members who live with Alzheimer’s disease of other dementias. We feel sympathy for them, but do we really understand how it feels to live with limited cognition, particularly if compounded by physical limitations? Sometimes, in order to understand what someone is going through, we have to literally step into their shoes, which is the ideology behind the Virtual Dementia Tour®.

The Virtual Dementia Tour® (VDT) is a scientifically proven method of building a greater understanding of dementia through the use of patented sensory tools and instruction. The VDT® was created by P.K. Beville, PhD, an award-winning geriatric psychologist, dementia expert, and founder of Second Wind Dreams®, an international, nonprofit organization recognized as the first in the nation committed to changing the perception of aging through the fulfillment of dreams for elders and the offering of innovative educational opportunities to caregivers, families, and communities.

Thanks to a grant from the Rutgers University Nurse Residency Program, several Parker team members were trained in how to facilitate the Virtual Dementia Tour. Marcy Salzberg, Director of Social Work and Dementia Care Services at Parker, found the tour to be of great value and incorporated it into some Dementia Care Program education initiatives and the staff education curriculum, where it successfully gave participants an empathic view into the lives of those who have dementia. Parker then purchased the VDT for use in all Parker sites, including the comprehensive package, which allows Parker to offer the Tour to the community.

Parker contacted the Piscataway and Woodbridge police departments and the Office of the Middlesex County Prosecutor to gauge their interest. All three organizations were very interested and sent representatives to Parker’s first tour for non-employees.

Participants in our first Virtual Dementia Tour given to the public were Detective Mark Zeno from the Woodbridge Police Department, along with Lieutenant Anthony Crisafulli, Captain Michael McLaughlin, and Patrolman Dean Petrillo from the Piscataway Police Department. The Office of the Middlesex County Prosecutor sent Meghan McFadden and Jasmine Pagan to experience the VDT.

Katie Ciarelli, social worker at Parker’s Adult Day Center, began the program with a presentation on dementia, listing the types of calls police officers may see that involve those with dementia, such as theft, car accidents, and domestic violence.  Violence in dementia is usually a reaction to some stimulus in the elder’s environment. Lieutenant Crisafulli shared that he responds to a half dozen calls pertaining to mental illness-related issues in a 10-hour shift.

After taking a pre-test about dementia and their own frame of mind, the visitors put on special glasses that simulated macular degeneration, heavy gloves that deterred touch, headphones that made hearing and thinking difficult, and an uncomfortable insert in their shoes. They were led, one at a time, to a room where a strobe light added discomfort by impacting vision. The room contained a rack of clothes, a pile of laundry on a table, a dining table and chairs with table settings, and an area to sit down and write.

“Each participant in the Virtual Dementia Tour® is given a series of everyday tasks to perform, such as writing a letter, folding laundry, and clearing a table of dinner settings,” Katie Ciarelli explains. The strobe light and glasses impede vision, the headphones restrict hearing and their feet hurt from the inserts. All the discomforts impact their ability to hear, understand and comply with the list of requested tasks.

In a debriefing conversation about their tour experiences, Detective Mark Zeno admitted to feeling nervous and uncomfortable, unsure of himself, and had difficulty focusing on the tasks. Jasmine Pagan remarked that she couldn’t hear the instructions given because of the headset noise, so she didn’t know what to do during the tour.

Lieutenant Anthony Crisafulli described the frustration that he felt with his inability to remember instructions during the tour. He noted that, “It was the most insightful five minutes I’ve ever had. It was eye-opening to see what it’s like to live in someone else’s shoes.”

In a letter sent to Parker the day after the event, Captain McLaughlin wrote about his experience: “I felt helpless while in the room. I felt suspicious of my coworkers as the delay in entry gave me the impression that my coworkers were somehow involved in the experiment and that I was being deceived as to what I was to be doing.  Once I realized that they were as confused as I was, I looked to the staff members for assistance, yet none was offered.”

“Beyond the obvious difficulty in hand eye coordination was the feeling of alienation and a sense of being alone in a room full of people. I was humbled by the experience of feeling helpless, vision altered, touch limited, pain in my feet and hearing interrupted by the out of tune sounds in each ear.  I will take what I have learned and share it with my fellow officers so that they may understand the difficulties a person with Dementia has to deal with on a daily basis,” McLaughlin added.

After the debriefing, Parker’s social worker team gave advice to the tour attendees about how to communicate with someone who lives with dementia:

  • Identify yourself and state that you are here to help
  • If the environment is loud or chaotic, move them to a quieter place to ease communication
  • Use a clear voice, but not at an overly loud volume
  • Ask the elder if they can hear you.
  • Get down to their eye level. If the elder is sitting, take a seat or crouch down next to him.
  • Use simple words and phrases. If you repeat yourself, use the same words and phrases, which helps someone with cognitive difficulties to process your question or comment.
  • Avoid arguments
  • Do not give strict orders
  • Do not act condescending
  • Do not ask detailed questions that require a detailed response.
At the end of the tour, all the attendees and Parker staff agreed that the Virtual Dementia Tour is of great value to first responders and other professionals who may be asked to help when someone with cognitive issues has a problem. Marcy Salzberg and Parker’s Virtual Dementia Tour team of facilitators will be planning more tours in the near future. For more information, call Parker at 732-902-4200.

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