“Clear table, write down seven brown things, set the clock to 8:50.”
It should be simple.
These three tasks usually can be completed without a second thought.
But it wasn’t simple.
I was in the Virtual Dementia Tour, hosted by the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library South Branch, on April 14.
The Virtual Dementia Tour is an immersive experience that simulates the difficulty associated with completing simple tasks when suffering with dementia. It was developed by P.K. Beville, founder of the nonprofit Second Wind Dreams, through a scientifically-proven method, according to secondwind.org. KHCPL staff overseeing the tour received certified training to do so.
I wore tinted sunglasses with a black ring in the center of the lens, spiked insoles in my shoes and thick, knitted gloves with the pointer and middle fingers stitched together.
The worst part, though, was the headphones. It took a few tries to adjust them properly, wanting them to fit perfectly over my ears so I wouldn’t be cheating.
Once they were placed, I wished I had cheated. The sound was a mix of music, mumbled conversation and static. It was the sound of confusion, and it was loud.
I was guided into a dim room arranged like a studio apartment. Library volunteer Jan Drac gave me the instructions. I couldn’t hear her. I apologized, she repeated herself.
There was no understanding her over the sound of confusion coming through my headphones. We both wore face masks but even if she wasn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to read her lips through the glasses.
For a fleeting moment, I thought, “I’ll just have to stand here forever. I’ll never understand what she’s asking of me.” I was humiliated. I leaned in to hear better.
“Let’s try again,” she said. “Clear table, write down seven brown things, set the clock to 8:50.”
I still wasn’t sure if I had the right tasks, but Drac left. Another volunteer stood in the room to evaluate how I did.
“Am I supposed to know where these items go?” I asked the volunteer, but she just shook her head.
“I’m sorry, I can’t help you in any way.”
There were scattered pills on the table, but no bottle, so I tried to scoop them up but I instead dropped them on the floor as I was fumbling through the gloves. I put the pills in a coin purse that was in the room, and placed it on the kitchen counter.
I noticed some odd things. The faux apartment seemed like it belonged to a woman, with a picture of an elderly woman taped to a handheld mirror. But there was a men’s tie and shirt on the bed, and items for a child, such as stuffed animals, throughout the room.
There were pill bottles in the drying rack on the sink, and it didn’t occur to me until four hours later that the pills went in those bottles, not the coin purse.
The experience was difficult and embarrassing. I found out that I was only in the room for four minutes and 30 seconds, but participants are usually kept in the room for at least eight minutes.
I would have stayed for the eight minutes, but four more minutes doesn’t mean much for a temporary exercise when the truth stared me in the face: those suffering don’t get to leave when they’re done with their tasks.