“You can’t really understand a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes.”
This Cherokee proverb came true for me this week when I was invited to participate in something called the Virtual Dementia Tour by a local residential care home manager. Designed by P K Beville in 2001 the tour bus is designed to help you experience what it is like to be a sufferer of dementia. It is based upon years of research and the tour literally puts you in their shoes.
More effective than participating in a two hour lecture , this seven minute ‘virtual reality’ tour bombards the senses and leaves you with a unique and valuable experience that will make a lasting impression upon you. Your hearing, vision, sense of touch, and even the very soles in your shoes are all impaired. You cannot perform basic tasks. I used to picture dementia as an experience perhaps like being in a fog – I now know it is more like being in a whirlwind for many sufferers. I was moved.
Deliberately given instructions in a terse and impersonal manner by an unnamed ‘tour guide’ the tour also helps you to understand how sufferers can feel treated and in that sense helps you to empathise with the often frightening situation they are placed in through their condition.
Affecting more than three quarters of a million people in the UK alone and expected to rise to two million by 2050, dementia is the ‘D’ word that has replaced the formerly unspeakable ‘C’ word of cancer in many ways in our society. As used to be the case with cancer sufferers a BBC news programme only today has reported that over two thirds of dementia sufferers feel as though their life is over when they are diagnosed. Shame, embarrassment, and fear still surround this disease for sufferers and relatives alike. And that stigma will continue wherever there is resistance by the majority in walking in the shoes of the marginalised.
Research continues and there is even a mobile app called ‘Sea Hero Quest’ to assist in continuing studies in understanding dementia and how to counteract the disease. My own personal recommendation would be that the Virtual Dementia Tour Bus not only be made available to residential care workers and others in the caring professions, but in other community organisations and secondary schools. There is such a prevailing stigma about being a dementia sufferer, that I think all generations could benefit from walking in the shoes of the afflicted, even if only for seven minutes.
Finally, as a Christian I think I have learned a valuable spiritual insight that applies more generally to everyone who may come across my path: If I am not prepared to walk in the shoes of others how can I help them walk with God?