The prickly sole inserts placed in our shoes mimicked the pins-and-needles discomfort of neuropathy. Two sets of gloves -- cloth over plastic -- and a finger splint made our fingers feel arthritically clumsy. Eyeglasses, with blurred yellow lenses and a dot before each pupil, simulated macular degeneration. Worse were the muffled voices and crackling static in our earphones that replicated tinnitus-impaired hearing.

When I participated in a Virtual Dementia Tour last week at the Commons at Dallas Ranch, an Antioch assisted-living facility, the disorientation and frustration that defines Alzheimer's victims became frighteningly clear. I'm glad it lasted only 10 minutes.

In this hands-on program, created by geriatric specialist P.K. Beville, of Marietta, Ga., several participants are led into a dimly lit apartment and given five simple tasks. I was told to: (1) find a toothbrush in the bathroom and put it in a cup; (2) find a green sheet of paper and connect the dots; (3) fold T-shirts in a pile of laundry; (4) string wooden beads into a necklace; and (5) locate a green book and turn to page 47.

Trouble was, even as I strained my ears and tried to read lips, I could make out only two of the tasks. Someone else beat me to the shirts, so I targeted the wooden beads.

I began by dropping a bead on the floor and having to get on all fours to retrieve it. Then I laced four into place, only to lose my grip on the string and watch three of them tumble onto a table. I felt an undeniable surge of frustration.


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Dr. Brion Pearson, vice president for medical affairs at Sutter Delta Medical Center, had similar feelings as he took the test.

"It was very uncomfortable not being able to hear or see clearly, along with the physical limitations," he said. "You have these expectations of yourself. I should be able to do this, and I can't. You feel foolish."

There is also a sense of helpless isolation that's accentuated by the inability to communicate with others. Meanwhile, the buzzing in our ears was interrupted by periodic bursts of noise -- first a siren, then a slamming door. Dementia victims often are distracted by startling sounds. So was I.

One woman in our group was so troubled -- inaudible pieces of conversations flooding her ears -- that she nearly removed her headset. Another, unclear about her chores, folded laundry just to keep busy. Everyone complained of the discomfort in their feet.

Rick Carson, president of Right at Home in-home care, said his compassion for dementia sufferers motivates him to bring this event to assisted-care sites, so health care workers and relatives can better relate to victims. His grandmother was afflicted with the disease.

The program illustrates why victims have difficulty focusing and why communication is a challenge. Keep conversation topics simple, he said. Stand directly in front of the person to whom you're speaking. Be patient. Illuminate living quarters for aging eyeballs.

One symptom the test cannot replicate is short-term memory loss, but Carson explained that it causes sufferers to misplace years. "They believe they're living in the era they remember," he said.

He cited a dementia sufferer, who thought he was 57 years old reacting with alarm when his visiting son appeared older than his years. "The father said his son was 36, but he looked his dad's age," Carson said.

Turns out, the father was 78. His son was 57. The disease had robbed him of 21 years.

Dementia is daunting. Even if you have it for only 10 minutes.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.