- Published: 30 January 2017
By Kathy Majowski
My career in health care has taken me down roads that I didn’t expect or plan. Whether it was in long-term care, where I was providing support and care as a Health Care Aide (or Personal Support Worker in Ontario), in my nursing work that connected me to people in acute care and community settings, or in my current position as a staff educator in a 197-resident long-term care facility, many of these roads have put me in contact with older adults living with various stages of dementia. Although I’ve always tried to keep an open mind, “walk in someone else’s shoes”, and really try to understand what my patients/residents/clients were going through, I realized last week that I never truly understood what living with dementia might feel like.
On the advice of my manager and various staff members at my organization, I made arrangements with the Alzheimer’s Society of Manitoba to come to our facility and host a “Virtual Dementia Tour” for Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. I’d heard about this experience throughout my career but had never had the opportunity try it myself. The Virtual Dementia Tour is a 10-minute tour through what it might feel like to live with dementia while also managing common deficits associated with aging. Tour participants go through a staged room in pairs, outfitted with equipment that provides simulated deficits in vision, tactile sensation, and mobility (similar to living with arthritis in the finger joints). Each participant is asked to complete 5 simple tasks (set the table, fold towels, pair socks, etc.) while in a room with low lighting, a strobe light and “white noise” conversations coming from a small radio.
What stood out for me about the experience:
- Wow! Those tasks were hard to complete for a (mostly) cognitively intact person like myself!
- How much the conversation coming from the radio reminded me of conversations that are happening in our dining rooms. It’s not surprising that elders with dementia get overwhelmed in large groups or by what cognitively intact people consider normal social experiences.
- It’s confusing trying to THINK when there are people chatting around you!
- The anxiety that I was starting to feel, not being able to clearly see the room around me or the clothing in front of me well enough to pair socks!
So what does this have to do with Elder Abuse?
One of the roots of elder abuse is a poor understanding of the capabilities of the other person combined with learned, subtle or overt ageism. A caregiver interacting with a person who is living with dementia can become more easily frustrated if their expectations are beyond what the person is capable of, and this can have disastrous outcomes. The World Health Organization has acknowledged that elder abuse is related to the prevalence of ageism in our society and is more frequent in families where there is a diagnosis of dementia. In addition, the National Centre on Elder Abuse (in the USA) has identified that education for caretakers focused on behaviour management techniques (including learning to recognize what the care receiver is experiencing) can be helpful for carers to understand that these behaviours have meaning and “reduce the common tendency to take disturbing behaviours personally”.
Experiences like the “Virtual Dementia Tour” are eye-opening; many members of my staff left the tour with an “a-ha” expression on their face, from realizations that they hadn’t experienced in all of their years working in long-term care. I believe that the development of and participation in these experiential workshops will have a huge impact on our individual understanding of the battles that other people face on a daily basis, and that this empathy will help to decrease the instances of elder abuse in our communities.
About the author
Kathy is a degree-prepared nurse who began her career in health care 17 years ago. In that time she has worked in various roles, including as a nurse, support worker, staff educator, clinical and classroom instructor, educational program developer, and subject matter expert. Kathy’s career in nursing has included experience in acute and long-term care facilities, as well as work in a northern Manitoban community where the nursing station functioned as both a clinic and trauma stabilization centre. Although caring for seniors has always been a part of Kathy’s career, her current role as the Staff Educator in a long-term care facility has brought her a greater awareness of some of the issues that seniors face. Kathy is on the board of directors of CNPEA since September 2016.