HARLINGEN — We all know what it’s like to fumble around in a dark room without a flashlight.

Or do we?

Try being someone with a lifetime of experiences who can’t remember the date, can’t pick up a spoon, and can’t stand without pain shooting up his legs.

Such patients with dementia may have been teachers, office managers, dishwashers, pilots, waiters, military veterans, or physicians. Chances are they’ve raised kids and even grandkids. They’ve had confidence and control, but now the world is a bewildering and even frightening place.

Just ask Cindy De Leon, who just took a walk in their shoes.

“I feel like I gained knowledge of what people with dementia experience,” said De Leon, a licensed vocational nurse at Retama Manor Nursing Center.

She and two other employees at the facility had just taken a “Virtual Dementia Tour” under the direction of Cindy Crim. They’d donned special devices and then tried to perform simple tasks.

“Put these inside your shoes,” said Crim, holding up small inserts with accessories to simulate difficulty walking. Crim is a registered nurse from the Texas Department of Health and Human Services.

She said the inserts would simulate peripheral neuropathy in which people feel pain shooting up their legs when they walk.

“Put on these gloves,” she said, handing them first latex gloves and then thicker pieces. De Leon and two other employees struggled to put them on.

“They are not going to fit perfectly,” Crim said. “They are supposed to fit that way.”

She explained further that people with dementia suffer from poor eyesight, hence dark glasses with limited vision. The thick layers of gloves simulate difficult movements from arthritis, or contracture in which the fingers contract and patients lose flexibility.

Crim then read each her assigned task and gave them eight minutes to complete. Those tasks involved picking up items or arranging things in a particular order. In the darkness of the room they could be heard mumbling with frustration.

Beba Arratia, a residency care specialist at Retama, struggled to assemble three sets of silverware on a table, which seemed to make her more aware of her patients’ experiences.

“We’ll have more patience so we can understand what they feel,” she said. “They do everything slow and we’ll have patience with them.”

This is the kind of empathy Jeff Tait, CEO of Retama Manor, wanted to impart to his employees. He talked about the difficulty of communicating with dementia patients.

“A lot of times you’ll ask questions,” he said. “Well, guess what. They won’t be able to answer them. You can ask 100 times. You’re not going to be able to change their memory.”

He said dementia patients experience the world in a very different way. They have a heightened sense of sound and touch. If someone walks up behind a dementia patient and touches them without warning, they may react negatively.

“You’re like, ‘But I didn’t do anything,’” he said. “Well, yes you did. How you approach somebody with dementia is something you have to really learn. By experiencing it, it allows you to really understand.”

Groups of staff members took the tour both Tuesday and yesterday, and they all seemed to get the message.

“It helps us to better interact with them and understand them,” said Mirta Cisneros, RCS.

“On a daily business even in communication they ask you questions,” she said. “It’s very repetitious.”

What is dementia?

Dementia isn’t a specific disease. Instead, dementia describes a group of symptoms affecting memory, thinking and social abilities severely enough to interfere with daily functioning.

Though dementia generally involves memory loss, memory loss has different causes. So memory loss alone doesn’t mean you have dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of a progressive dementia in older adults, but there are a number of causes of dementia. Depending on the cause, some dementia symptoms can be reversed.

Symptoms

Cognitive changes

• Memory loss, which is usually noticed by a spouse or someone else

• Difficulty communicating or finding words

• Difficulty reasoning or problem-solving

• Difficulty handling complex tasks

• Difficulty with planning and organizing

• Difficulty with coordination and motor functions

• Confusion and disorientation

Psychological changes

• Personality changes

• Depression

• Anxiety

• Inappropriate behavior

• Paranoia

• Agitation

• Hallucinations