Staff at Barnet Hospital have been given a unique opportunity to enter the world of dementia patients by taking a ‘virtual dementia tour’.

At the start of Dementia Awareness Week, more than 30 members of staff from across the hospital found out just how challenging it feels to be a person with dementia by taking part an immersive experience on a parked bus., 

According to Alzheimer’s Research UK a person’s risk of dementia from one in 14 over the age of 65, to one in six over the age of 80. That figure is set to rise given the growth in our ageing population.

The tour, which took place on a bus parked at Barnet Hospital, began with staff putting spiky inserts into their shoes to replicate peripheral neuropathy (dying nerve-endings), covering their hands with thick gloves to simulate arthritis and wearing special glasses to copy the macular degeneration that many dementia patients suffer.  Staff were also made to wear headphones pumping loud white noise and static into their ear-drums, punctuated with loud crashes and sirens. Created in partnership with people who have dementia, the headphones provided an ultra-realistic experience into the world of dementia, replicating ‘audio-mass’, a condition where nearby and distant sounds are almost indistinguishable. 

Staff were then instructed to complete everyday tasks such as laying a table, writing a note to their family, tying a tie and doing up buttons on a jacket. All of which proved almost impossible given the level of noise, visual impairment and disorientation involved.

Before the experience, Ellie Childs, a healthcare assistant on Palm ward at Barnet Hospital who looks after patients with dementia, admitted she was nervous.

She said: “I’m not looking forward to it as I’m a bit of control freak so I really don’t like the idea.”

Although the ‘tour’ only lasted eight-and-a-half minutes, all those taking part agreed it felt much longer. 

Alison Chan, who works on Cedar ward, confessed: “It felt like a lifetime.”

The trainer, John, who also works in care homes as well as running the virtual tours, said: “We need to change our world to suit people with dementia, not to suit us. The environment, the situation or us are the problem, not the person with dementia. 

“I have been impressed with what I’ve seen at Barnet Hospital. I love Larch ward – there is so much colour and clear signposting.

“What staff have experienced today was mid-stage dementia. Symptoms vary widely from patient to patient but this is the reality for lots and lots of people.”

After completing the tour, Ellie reflected on her experience. She said: “I think everyone who works in a hospital should do this training, especially because dementia is on the increase. It really hit home to me doing this that having dementia is so much worse than processing things a bit slowly. It’s not that at all, you actually experience the world completely differently.”

Rita Sandhu, an orthopaedic practitioner, said: “The training was very scary and made us feel very vulnerable and isolated. It made me realise how hard it must be for patients to trust hospital staff. We’ve been given a glimpse of what it’s like and what carers go through as well. It’s opened my mind and has given me real insight. Staff must remember to have patience, dignity and respect.”

John the trainer’s top tips:

1. Smile at the person with dementia and speak in a friendly tone of voice. Try to stand/sit in front of them or, if they are in a bed or wheelchair, come down to their level and stay in front of them where they will be able to make you out a little better. Introduce yourself each time.
2. Music is really important – try and find the music that they love and can recall. Children and animals can also help people with dementia to feel calm. 
3. Recommend that if families have to come altogether they leave one at a time so as to reduce agitation and ask them not to say goodbye. Otherwise the person with dementia will want to leave with them and could become agitated.
4. A zimmer frame could help someone walk better because it enables them to take the weight off often painful feet. Why not help a patient ‘pimp up’ their zimmer frame so it becomes theirs.
5. Find out as much as you can about your patient. It will really help you to have some conversation-starters up your sleeve. Remember they may view themselves as a 25-year-old so try and find out what age they think they are and try to relate to them in that way.
6. Experience a taste of the training for yourself.