YORK — AseraCare Hospice of York’s Volunteer Coordinator Suzy Heine was secretive about the particulars of the hospice’s latest offering: the Virtual Dementia Tour (VDT).

The tour is intended to let caregivers and loved ones walk in the shoes of an individual living with dementia. As a result, the participant is supposed to come out of the experience approaching their loved one with more compassion and patience.

“Anybody who is caring for someone who is caring for a dementia patient should come in and take it,” Heine said, as she outfitted me with a few of seemingly benign items.

“Benign” items, however, can still say a lot.

*****

The VDT was designed to immerse participants in a close-up, hands-on experience that gives insight into the world of people with dementia. It has been used internationally since 2001, and recently came available at AseraCare of York. The experience was developed and promoted by Second Wind Dreams, a nonprofit focused on changing the perception of aging.

The tour itself was conceived of by P.K. Beville – an expert in the field of geriatrics and the founder of Second Wind Dreams. The VDT instruction and sensory tools are patented and unique to the program.

Facilitating VDTs requires specialized training. These individuals are instructed by a certified trainer, who, according to Second Wind Dreams, “receives a higher level of training in best practices for conducting the Tour, and more advanced dementia education.”

Three AseraCare employees have been specially trained to administer VDT. Heine is one of those people. She said the VDT experience helps caregivers and family members improve the care of their loved one. “People [who take the tour] will take more time with dementia patients,” she said, adding that the VDT is also about understanding the condition itself. “It’s not behavioral,” Hein said. “They just absolutely can’t do it.”

The connection between loved ones and caregivers also becomes stronger, Heine said. “It’s important that we talk about what the tour felt like and what the tour was about,” Heine said.

Heine and her colleagues want to educate as many people about dementia as possible – even offering the VDT to the public free of charge. “Our hope is to get as many people in the community get the understanding of what dementia is like,” Heine said.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has lofty goals for its global dementia public health response. Among them is “increasing awareness of dementia and establishing dementia-friendly initiatives.”

According to Second Wind Dreams, “Appreciation of the challenges facing those with dementia results in greater understanding.”

Heine seemed to agree.

“It’s very eye opening,” she said. “You have a lot of nerves going in, but a better understanding coming out.”

Stumbling, wobbly and clumsy -- but with a sense of increased empathy -- Heine had to guide me out of the room and settle me into an office chair. I had to take off the “benign” accessories and sit for a bit.

It took only took me a brief rest before I returned to a state many of us take for granted.

Key Facts About Dementia

• Dementia is a syndrome in which there is deterioration in memory,

thinking, behavior and the ability to perform everyday activities.

• Dementia mainly affects older people, but is not a normal part of aging.

• Worldwide, around 50 million people have dementia. There are almost

10 million new cases annually.

• Alzheimer disease is the most common form of dementia and may

contribute to up to 70 percent of cases.

• Dementia is one of the major causes of disability and dependency

among older people worldwide.

• Dementia has a physical, psychological, social, and economic impact,

not only on people with dementia, but also on their careers, families

and society at large.

Information from World Health Organization (WHO)

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