A walk in the shoes of a dementia patient - WXOW News 19 La Crosse, WI – News, Weather and Sports |

A walk in the shoes of a dementia patient

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LA CROSSE, Wisconsin (WXOW)-- More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease. The number could rise to as many as 16 million by 2050.   

Alzheimer's is the largest category of dementia. Dementia is not a disease, but a term used to describe symptoms caused by disorders affecting the brain. Seven of 10 Alzheimer's patients live at home, but many caregivers aren't equipped to deal with the symptoms.

In the Coulee Region, The Alzheimer's Association provides assistance to families.

"I think it's definitely a difficult disease for caregivers to understand because it effects every person differently," said Brett Williams of The Alzheimer's Association. "So someone can learn about Alzheimer's Disease, but until you really learn how each person is going through it, there's no way to really understand it."

At Western Technical College, students entering healthcare fields have a tool allowing them to walk in the shoes of a dementia patient. The virtual dementia tour is part of an Alzheimer's training course. Participants are asked to perform simple tasks but with limitations that simulate those of a person suffering from dementia.

"It helps the worker communicate effectively and communicate appropriately," said Linda Schneider, an adjunct instructor at Western.

The course limits all your senses, from sight to motor skills to hearing, so even listening to the instructions is difficult. There are even inserts in the participants shoes to create a pins and needles sensation dementia patients experience.

"Dementia is not normal aging at all," Schneider said. "Dementia is a problem happening in the brain. It's a disease within the brain."

And it's a common disease, according to the National Institute on Aging, half of those over 85 suffer from some type of dementia.

"One thing I learned on the dementia virtual tour was how confused I was," said Jacquelyn Ross, a Western student who went through the simulation. "I just couldn't' believe how much was really going on and then still expected to act like a normal person."

Experiencing just how frustrating it can be to just fold a sheet, helps caregivers understand the struggles their patient faces.

"A lot of people need to know," Ross said. "Not enough people know."

Despite being told exactly what to do and having an instruction sheet, when News 19's Kristen Barbaresi only managed to do one of the five tasks correctly. She set the table for two instead of four, filled both glasses instead of just one and wrote a letter about her family, instead of a letter to her family.

"Help with the expectation that they have of working with a person that's got these kinds of cognitive impairments as well as impairments of aging with hearing and feeling," Schneider said.

27 percent of Alzheimer's patients suffer from minor depression and 22 percent have major depression and the course helps participants understand why.

"I've put myself in their shoes," Ross said. "You know that there's no cutting corners. It's just what it is."

The Alzheimer's course is funded by the Bridges to Healthcare grant Western received in 2011. The course is the result of feedback from employers who said personal care workers need more training in dementia, especially with the aging population.

The course isn't only helpful for students. The idea is expanding to the community and professions dealing with the elderly.

"We're looking at doing some additional training in the next year," said Sandra Schultz, the Bridges to Healthcare Grant coordinator. "We're doing a foundation course with the Alzheimer's association. And we're also looking at doing specific training with various groups such as the law enforcement and we're looking at the EMT group."

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