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Portage police officers, community members, experience what dementia can be like

WiscNews - 11/16/2023

Nov. 16—Portage police officers were among the community members who got a sense of what it is like to have dementia in simulation offered by two Columbia County organizations.

"Becoming more familiar with what people who have dementia are experiencing will only allow us to better assist them as a department," said patrol Lt. Benjamin Neumann. "Also, having the understanding that instructions may not be as easily understood or perceived by them is something I didn't realize until today."

The Dementia Live simulation, which took place Monday at the Portage Public Library, gave about 20 participants a deeper understanding of what it is like to live with cognitive impairment and sensory change.

The experience, presented by the Aging and Disability Resource Center and St. Croix Hospice of Baraboo, had groups of two to four participants carry out basic daily tasks while wearing glasses simulating tunnel vision, concentration disturbing headsets, and gloves replicating changes in fine motor skills — all of which are common symptoms of the various forms of dementia, organizers said.

To actually engage in the process of having sensory limitations is a powerful experience for people who have a loved one with a dementia diagnosis, said Gina Baldwin, care transition coordinator for St. Croix Hospice in Baraboo and co-facilitator of the program.

"It's so impactful to be able to recognize some of the things that their loved ones are experiencing," said Baldwin. "Sometimes it can be even emotional for them."

The overwhelming instructions, which participants barley heard, if at all, ordered them to complete tasks such as tie a pair of shoes, put together four pieces of a puzzle, take Tuesday's pill and button a shirt.

The tasks usually elicit different reactions from people, in the same way that each person with dementia is likely to have different symptoms and reactions to them, which is a main teaching point of the simulation, organizers said.

"It's common for people to tell us that they didn't hear an instruction after the first one is read," said Baldwin. "Some people then freeze, some people look around and see what other people are doing, some people wander and try to do something that they think is productive ... It's kind of similar to what you see people with dementia doing. They know they have to do something, but sometimes don't know what it is."

After they geared up and received instructions, participants were allotted about 10 minutes to complete their tasks, which saw nearly all of them do what Baldwin mentioned people with dementia generally do — guess at what they were supposed accomplish and just do something.

"I couldn't hear anything I was told to do," said Neumann who participated in one of the last sessions of the day. "(The facilitator) gestured the number 3 at me, so I assumed she was telling me to do three things, so I picked three random things ... I couldn't tell you if they were what I supposed to do or not."

A 20-minute debriefing period directly followed the tasks, allowing participants to share what they experienced, receive information about how their experiences equated with dementia symptoms, and learn what tasks they had been asked to do.

"I didn't realize how much of a sensory overload this would be," said Neumann. "Having the understanding that there may be other factors at play with dementia and that it's not just a memory-loss thing is something we can share with everyone at the department."

The experience fosters the idea of creating not only a more dementia-friendly Portage, but Columbia County, said Nellie Mueller, dementia care specialist for the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Columbia County.

"Dementia is just not a topic that is discussed as much as it is occurring," said Mueller. "But diagnoses are increasing ... partially due to technology being better, so people can more accurately diagnosis it, but also the baby boomer population is getting to the age where this disease is more prevalent ... So raising awareness about dementia and its impact is as important right now as ever."

The Aging and Disability Resource Center of Columbia County works to help adults age 60 and older, as well as adults age 18-59 with physical, developmental, mental health, substance abuse or aging issues. It also assists children with disabilities as they transition into the adult services system.

Services offered include information and referrals for local community resources, counseling on options to meet immediate or future care needs, assistance in applying for benefit programs such as Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid, and assistance with other health insurance, housing and health promotion programs.

The organization also offers a dementia support group, which meets the first Monday of every month from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the Portage Public Library, 253 W. Edgewater St., and encourages people to share their experiences dealing with loved ones who are impacted by dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

"The biggest hurdle of going to a support group is showing up for the first time, and after that it becomes easy," said Mueller.

"There are a lot of unknowns," Mueller said. "It can be kind of scary and intimidating ... But whatever is said in the four walls, stays in the four walls. It's a completely confidential group."


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