Hospice Is Hope: ‘Dementia Moments’ teach high schoolers compassion

Wearing sunglasses that impair vision, headphones that blare static and thick gloves that hamper finer motor skills, Darcy Brodison’s students struggle to follow instructions and complete simple tasks. (Hospice of the Valley/Submitted)

By Lin Sue Flood
Hospice of the Valley

Arcadia High School teacher Darcy Brodison knows the best way to drive a lesson home is to touch a student’s heart. So she decided to immerse her class in a unique experience called “Dementia Moments” that demonstrates what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.   

She invited Hospice of the Valley to share the 8-minute simulation with juniors and seniors in her AP psychology class.

The eye-opening exercise pressed them to perform everyday tasks as if they were living with cognitive impairment. They put on sunglasses that blurred their vision and wore thick gloves to mimic the numbness that comes with arthritis and neuropathy. They donned headphones that blared static, making it hard to understand instructions, to sort loose coins, put on a belt, button a shirt, pair socks together, read and sign documents.

The tasks were frustrating, and the students were vocal about it. “I’m struggling!” they shouted. “I can’t open this. I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do. What do we do with the socks? I can’t hear anything clearly!”

After the experience, Hospice of the Valley dementia educator Helena Morgan asked the students to share their feelings. “We were anxious,” they confessed. “Overwhelmed. Disoriented. Confused.”

“These emotions explain why people with dementia may become aggressive and agitated. Their behaviors are what we refer to as nonverbal expression. Someone with dementia can’t verbalize what they are feeling — physically or emotionally,” Helena explains. “We’re expecting them to be able to get things done, but their brains don’t process information like they used to. What you’re hearing is frustration and, sometimes, fear.”

Arizona has the highest growth rate of people living with dementia in the entire country. By 2025, an estimated 200,000 Arizonans will be affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Education and compassionate support can make a huge difference in their quality of life.

It’s one of the reasons Hospice of the Valley continues to expand services to help people with all stages and types of dementia, train health professionals and inspire careers in dementia care.

Arcadia High School is within walking distance from the nonprofit agency’s new Dementia Care and Education Center at 44th Street and Indianola Avenue in Phoenix, and some of the students will be volunteering to provide companionship to patients.  All of them agreed this exercise taught them valuable skills.

“If your loved one has dementia, you can still treat them with dignity and respect,” Helena told them. “Simplify tasks. Slow things down. Make eye-level contact. Be aware of your tone and body language. Be friendly. Ask if you can help.”

Alyssa Blanks is watching her grandmother’s dementia progress. “She forgets a lot and repeats everything,” the 17-year-old shared with the class. After experiencing “Dementia Moments,” she felt enlightened and much more empathetic. “I will have more patience with my grandma now. I’ll be kinder and treat her with more grace.”

For information on Hospice of the Valley’s “Dementia Moments” and Dementia Care and Education Campus, call 602-767-8300 or visit dementiacampus.org.

Lin Sue Flood is community engagement director for Hospice of the Valley. For more information, email info@hov.org or visit hov.org.