Brush with dementia, aging an eye-opening experience

Brush with dementia, aging an eye-opening experience

Program simulates frustration, anxiety felt by people with Alzheimers or other disabilities

Photo: Nursing student Kimberlyn Sheehan and Martin Ruaux, a chief nursing officer at Niagara Health, navigate through their tasks during a session that simulates dementia and the effects of aging. – Gord Howard , Torstar

It’s hard to brush your teeth when you have glaucoma, limited hearing and only partial use of your arm and leg, thanks to a stroke.

There’s music blaring in your ears, too, and confusing noises in the background.

Turns out, there’s really not even a toothbrush available.

That was Martin Ruaux’s reality – for 10 minutes, at least – when he tried an aging and dementia simulation session this week.

“I can see why people get frustrated,” he said. “It was interesting, you go in and they give you four or five tasks.

“And then the tasks they give you, you’re not set up for success. So to brush your teeth, there’s no toothbrush. Only toothpaste.”

The session was sponsored by Niagara Health and the Alzheimer Society of Niagara.

In this case, it was to give staff at the St. Catharines hospital an idea of how it feels to be on the other side of health care, as a person whose ability to interact with the world is hindered by age or disease.

The Alzheimer Society of Niagara conducts the exercises year-round with community groups, especially ones that train nurses, personal support workers or others who care for people with some form of dementia.

Ruaux has experience working with those people – he is the site director executive lead and chief nursing officer for Niagara Health.

But even he was taken aback by the frustration he felt.

“In terms of the way it made me feel, I was pretty surprised,” he said.

“I’m cognitively intact. I’m not confused. I even know the environment, I know that auditorium (where the session was held),” he said.

“So it was pretty remarkable how a couple little changes can really make you anxious.”

At times during the session he was visibly upset, trying to find his way around a room and perform simple tasks with so many strikes against him.

Props are used – weights, eye covers, things to restrict people’s use of their fingers or limbs. That’s to simulate the effects not only of dementia but conditions like arthritis, cataracts and poor circulation that come with aging.

Then the person is shown into a room and told to complete everyday chores that would be simple if not for the simulated impairments.

Like looking for a toothbrush to brush your teeth. Or turning on a lamp. Not so easy, as Ruaux learned.

Last year, about 750 people went through the routine at one of the Alzheimer Society’s sessions.

“Most people find it a very powerful experience, because it’s quite realistic in terms of the physical and cognitive challenges we simulate for them,” said Christina Huntington, a nurse practitioner for seniors’ mental health at the NHS.

This week’s gatherings at the hospital were timed to coincide with Seniors Month.

It’s an important program, said Alzheimer Society of Niagara education coordinator Jessica Pace, especially since Niagara has a large seniors population.

“It’s really important to know that you do not need a doctor’s referral to come to access our services,” she said. “You can call us up or walk through our front door.”

The agency, on Ontario Street in St. Catharines, offers programs to help people with dementia and their caregivers, who are themselves often older spouses dealing with their own health issues related to aging.

The pathology of Alzheimer’s disease and its effects on the brain were discovered in 1907.

The number of cases has grown, though, as better nutrition and health care increased people’s life expectancy, since Alzheimer’s usually – but not always – attacks people in their 70s, 80s and older.

Pace said in Niagara there are about 10,200 people living with a diagnosis of dementia.

There are medications available for people with the illness, but they can only slow its growth or ease the symptoms. There’s nothing on the market that can stop or change the disease in any way, she said.

“I think sometimes the messaging is, well, you can’t do these things any more” after you’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, she said.

“The important message should be, keep doing as much as possible because that supports your brain health. Use your brain.”

@gordhoward | 905-225-1626

Source: St. Catharines Standard