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Indian River County program helps family members feel what it's like to have dementia

Posted at 12:43 PM, Sep 24, 2021

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY, Fla. — Many families wake up every morning with a big challenge in caring for a close family member with dementia.

Millions of Americans have it and our slice of South Florida is no exception.

A special program in Indian River County is helping people interact better with the more than 7,000 people dealing with the dementia on that part of the Treasure Coast.

"What we want to make sure of is whatever level of dementia you're at that you get to have the same quality of life as everybody else. And that you feel good, it's all about how they feel," said Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Association Executive Director Peggy Cunningham.

The dementia experience takes place on a bus the Association runs with help from local grants.

The experience training gives simple tasks to complete like getting money out of a coin purse, taking a shirt from the laundry and grabbing a pill from a pill box.

Gloves, headphones and blurry sunglasses are worn during the exercise to mimic the brain functions diminished by dementia.

This training gives families, businesses and law enforcement the chance to feel what it's like to have dementia.

When Susan Micheel, who works with the Association, went through this training, she was caring for her mother who was diagnosed with dementia.

"I think I cried the rest of the day. I was so moved and so affected by how disorienting it was," said Micheel.

For Micheel and many families, dementia signs aren't noticeable right away.

It could be an unpaid bill, a stove left on, a pet not fed.

Then, the eventual cognitive decline to the point where you can't live your life normally.

"My mother. I mean this is a woman I've learned from. You know, she was my first mentor,"said Micheel.

Recognizing dementia can also be challenging for law enforcement.

"The dementia experience is what really opened my eyes," said Indian River County Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant William Luther.

He explained what it's like approaching someone with the disease.

"Confusing. A lot of times it seems they might be intoxicated. Could be under the influence of alcohol, drugs, illicit substances, but they're not. And it's difficult for us as first responders to find that," said Lieutenant Luther.

The Indian River County Alzheimers and Parkinson’s Association said more than 2,240 people have trained on the dementia experience in the past two years.