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Firefighters experience 'dementia simulator'

Exercise helps give insight so responders can provide better service


Littleton firefighters got an empathy lesson at the Highline Place memory care facility on March 28 as they made their way through a “virtual dementia tour,” designed to simulate the sensory experience of people suffering from Alzheimer's disease or other mental degenerative disorders.

Firefighters were tasked with completing a simple set of commands, like counting out change, folding clothes, or setting a table. The catch? They had to do so while wearing heavy gloves, dark glasses, and shoe inserts that jabbed spikes into their feet. In their ears wailed the sounds of sirens, ringing phones and babbling gibberish.

Add a darkened room with flashing strobe lights, and suddenly simple tasks become much more difficult. At the facility in Littleton, the firefighters bumbled and stumbled through the tasks, struggling to remember instructions and fumbling with simple movements.

“It's sensory deprivation and sensory overload at the same time,” said Reid McKinney, a firefighter paramedic. “This was a test in patience that helps me understand what a dementia patient might be going through when I'm trying to help them. Me asking a simple question might be compounded by everything else going on in their heads.”

Collecting necessary information from dementia patients while on an emergency call can be challenging, said Capt. Michael Ryan.

“One thing I took from this experience is to take it slow and take everything one step at a time,” Ryan said. “If I say too much at once, I might overwhelm them.”

Going through the dementia tour is useful for anyone who works with people with degenerative mental issues, said Highline Place spokeswoman Kristin Walker.

“The number of people with dementia is growing all the time,” Walker said, “and there just aren't enough caregivers to meet the need. Helping to instill empathy and understanding in people who work with this population goes a long way.”


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