Occupational therapy students experience life with dementia firsthand
Occupational therapy students experience life with dementia firsthand

You’re standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, counting out money, when you briefly forget how much you owe. So you ask.

The checker snaps a reply. This is actually the second – or is it third? – time you’ve asked, and the store is busy. Can you please hurry?

This scenario, perhaps common for the estimated 47.5 million people worldwide living with dementia, played out in all-too-real fashion for a class of Creighton University occupational therapy students last week. Using virtual reality technology, the students – for a brief moment – experienced life as a person with dementia.    

“Just a few minutes in that person’s shoes gives them a perspective that totally changes how they interact with that person in the future,” says Andrea Thinnes, OTD’07, assistant professor of occupational therapy at Creighton, who held the exercise for her second-year students taking OTD423 – Occupational Therapy with Older Adults.

Through a grant from Creighton’s Teaching and Learning Center, Thinnes was able to purchase Google Cardboard virtual reality lenses for everyone in class. Students inserted a smartphone in the lenses and ran an application called “A Walk Through Dementia,” produced by Alzheimer’s Research UK.

The application allowed the students to walk through three scenarios – shopping for groceries, walking home and making tea – through the eyes of an elderly British woman with dementia. As the woman struggles through her mental fog, the students heard the disappointment and frustration in the voices of the people the woman encountered throughout the day.

Thinnes says she hopes the exercise helps her students empathize with patients with cognitive impairment as they prepare for her course’s lab work in the community at assisted living facilities later this semester.

“It was really eye-opening,” says Rylie Fikes, a student in Thinnes’ class. “I don’t have a lot of personal or family experience with dementia, so I feel like what I learn in the classroom is what I’ll take with me to practice.”