Two people in a lab wearing glasses looking at medicine.
Academic Innovation | 11/30/2023

Building Sensitivity: Simulation Training Puts Students in a Dementia Patient’s Shoes

By Jennifer Persons

Two people in a lab wearing glasses looking at medicine.

The Center for Research and Discovery hosted an immersive experience to teach the MCPHS Community how to improve care for dementia patients.

You get out of bed. Someone leads you into a dimly lit room. You can hear sirens, but you don’t know where they are coming from. You feel something in your shoe, but you don’t know what it is. Your hands don’t work the way you want them to. It’s hard to see. It’s hard to hear. And someone is barking orders at you to move faster, to move to the next task, to keep up with them. It’s all too much to comprehend.

This scenario is a simulation of the fundamental challenges people with dementia face, one that students and faculty at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) got to experience for themselves.

“It was so stressful, and I wanted them to be kinder.”

“It was uncomfortable and overwhelming.”

The Center for Research and Discovery at MCPHS hosted a dementia training workshop on the Boston campus, which included an immersive experience so students and faculty could feel some of the physical and cognitive limitations people living with dementia-causing diseases face daily.

The training aims to increase sensitivity in caring for these patients, given the high likelihood that MCPHS graduates will encounter people with dementia.

“In the U.S., an estimated 6.5 million adults over age 65 are currently living with the condition,” said Keri Griffin, PhD, Director of the Center for Research and Discovery. “Given the increasing age of the population and the healthcare interests of our students, it is prudent for them to learn more about this important healthcare outcome they might encounter in their professional practice.”

Caregivers and employees from Senior Living Residences—which manages 18 senior living facilities across New England—hosted the workshop. It started with a presentation to help students and faculty better understand what causes dementia, its prevalence, and helpful tactics for working with patients in various stages of dementia.

“I have a lot of students who are working, but they’re also caregivers for their family members,” said Shir Ginsburg, PhD, MPH, one of the faculty members who attended the workshop. “It’s a huge amount of pressure and something to be aware of as more people take on caregiver responsibilities.”

Then, it was time to experience dementia symptoms for themselves. To simulate the physical effects, each attendee had to put a small bag of corn kernels in their shoes, put in ear plugs, tape a few of their fingers so they couldn’t bend the knuckles, put on rubber gloves with gardening or winter gloves on top, and wear sunglasses or other lenses that impaired their vision. They also put on stickers that said, “I have dementia,” so they could feel the vulnerability and visibility of the condition.

Participants were brought into a room and told to complete a series of tasks that seem simple, if not for the physical and cognitive impairments imposed on them. This simulation—as described above—was shocking.

“Moving and hearing were not easy,” said Shay Hill, DPT ’26. “Even seeing was very difficult, and those were supposed to simulate the mild symptoms of dementia.”

After the simulation—and removing their physical impairments, a luxury people with dementia do not have—students reflected on the lessons of the experience.

“I felt like I was in their shoes,” said Fatimah Alroomi, BS in Medical and Molecular Biology ’24. “It helped me understand what people with dementia go through, and the way we interact with them is very important.”

Hill is a student at MCPHS Worcester and traveled to Boston just for this training. He recently visited an outpatient nursing home as part of his clinical training, where he encountered patients with dementia.

“It was very hard, and I was curious about the best way to help them,” he said. “This experience was very eye-opening. I learned to keep an open mind and see the world from their point of view, not mine.”

“I hope this will inspire some of our MCPHS Community members to volunteer their time in support of organizations that care for elders and others with special healthcare needs,” Dr. Griffin said.