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Littleton firefighters get a glimpse of Alzheimer’s and dementia

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By Deborah Swearingen

In a dark room at Littleton-based Highline Place, firefighter Michael Ryan picked up a piece of plastic silverware and held it close to his face, hoping to decipher whether it was a fork, spoon or knife.

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Organizing dinnerware in a memory care facility is probably not where you would expect to find members of Littleton Fire Rescue. But despite how it appeared, Ryan wasn’t preparing for a dinner party on March 28.

Instead, he and four other firefighters were participating in a virtual dementia event. They wore blurry glasses, thick gloves, uncomfortable shoe inserts, headphones and other items that simulated the sensory effects produced by the disease and then were asked to complete tasks.

Staff at Highline Place and other Anthem memory care facilities hope events such as this will help first responders, families and community members empathize and understand what patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia are going through on a daily basis.

After attempting to fold laundry, count change and pills, set tables and pour glasses of water with noises filtering from their headphones while wearing blurry glasses, participating firefighters agreed that creating empathy was exactly what the event did. They also acknowledged the exercise was a complete sensory overload.

“The sensory stuff is just nonstop,” Ryan said, adding that firefighters are “task-oriented, get job done type of people.

“It took us, again, out of our element, out of our comfort zone.”

Firefighter Reid McKinney agreed, emphasizing that the exercise gave him a better understanding of the effects of dementia.

“For us, it gives you the ability to basically empathize or put yourself in their shoes,” he said. “It’s a test in patience in a way.”

The number of Coloradans with Alzheimer’s is expected to increase by 33 percent by 2025, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. As dementia and Alzheimer’s cases increase, first responders will be assisting patients more frequently.

In addition to creating empathy, the virtual dementia event required critical thinking and contemplation about new ways to approach patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

According to Kim Paul, client advocate with Synergy HomeCare, after virtual dementia events, it’s important for participants to consider: What do we do now? How do we deal differently with someone?

Taking it slow is a step in the right direction, particularly for first responders who may be trying to help a person out of the comfort of their home and into an ambulance.

“One thing at a time is super important,” Ryan said. “ … One thing at a time. That’s a big change for us directly.”

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042.