Few could dispute the value of empathy in caring for people with dementia. Many would likely recoil if given the chance to witness life through their eyes, ears, noses, mouths or hands. 

Until, of course, they actually do just that.

Since 2001, Roswell, GA-based Second Wind Dreams® says it has been changing the perception of aging in more than 1,000 senior living communities in 20 countries through a rare and revealing multisensory learning experience designed to mimic the world those with dementia see, smell, hear, touch and taste every day. 

For the dining component of the evidence-based tool called Virtual Dementia Tour® (VDT), everything from special lighting, shoe inserts, tactile gloves and eyeglasses to a jarring soundtrack participants listen to through noise cancelling headphones creates an experience designed to mimic the myriad sensory experiences a typical dementia resident has, says Melora Jackson, clinical manager of its flagship sensitivity training program.

“During a typical meal experience, the VDT facilitator appears suddenly outside a participant’s peripheral vision while the soundtrack causes confusion, and by the time all sensory pieces activate, the participant starts to experience exactly what someone in the middle stage of dementia would be going through.

“The secret is we set people up to fail so they can see what it’s like — to experience the confusion and frustration so many people with dementia have,” she adds.

When choosing menu items, for example, participants see a table, plate and various food items that are all in the same color group, making it difficult to distinguish between them all.

During the debriefing that follows each VDT experience, “participants typically end up telling us what they need to change about their behavior, instead of the other way around,” says Jackson. “Then it becomes their idea and their behavior begins to change from that point on.”

PK Beville, who founded Second Wind Dreams in 1997, says the sessions invariably lead to better nutrition among residents. Beville is planning a research project in 2020 to compare resident weights before and after VDT experiences.