Dementia Simulation Helps Employees Treat Patients With More Empathy

April 4th 2019, Our News

Recently, employees at the Western Michigan skilled nursing facility, SKLD Zeeland, joined a dementia simulation so that they could experience firsthand what it is like to live with cognitive and physical impairments associated with the disease.

The Gilead Memory Care Unit at SKLD Zeeland is one of the largest and most comprehensive facilities in the Western Michigan area. This means that finding ways to provide better skilled nursing care for patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is a constant priority for the staff.

Simulation helps employees treat patients with more empathy

Interim administrator Cheryl Keenoy and Life Enrichment Director Rachael Stapley developed an exercise that mimicked a typical day of life with dementia. Staff members were “suited-up” in outfits devised to change their senses, simulating hand neuropathy and arthritis, macular degeneration, unilateral paresis, sensory overload from background noise and restricted range of motion. Once their senses were altered, the staff members were assigned simple tasks, such as using a walker to walk to a separate room, setting the table and folding laundry. While in the room, the trainers noted which signs of dementia the participants displayed, such as agitation, anxiety, confusion, rummaging and wandering. Trainers offered reminders such as, “You have to use your walker.”

SKLD Zeeland Registered Dietitian Matthew LaPointe, who participated in the simulation, says, “I’m the kind of person who likes to use my hands, and not being able to grasp and hold items made it very frustrating to do the tasks asked of us. Plus having the decreased vision added to the difficulty of everything. If I dealt with this everyday it would make me not want to do anything.”

Facility administrators devised the training based on a simulation they joined in college. Rachael Stapley says, “It was vital in our understanding of dementia, and I believe that it is an important first step for staff to go through in order to provide the very best care on our memory unit.”

SKLD Zeeland staff member attempts to fold laundry during a dementia simulation training session.

outstanding dementia unit in Western Michigan

Following the activity, participants discussed how the alteration of their senses affected them physically and mentally. Interim administrator Cheryl Keenoy says, “We have found that this training is helpful to our staff in empathizing with residents on a daily basis. They know what it’s like when residents may be experiencing confusion in daily tasks, forgetfulness and agitation due to overstimulation.”

For Matthew LaPointe, that certainly was the case. He says, “We see them every day, and we know what difficulties they have, but I think it is just hard to totally understand what it feels like to actually be in their shoes. This defiantly made me more aware of what our patients deal with and how difficult some tasks can be for them.”

Geoff Brinkman, business office manager at SKLD Zeeland, says, “I basically had to concentrate much more deeply within myself. The simplest tasks took concentration, and I felt I had no one there to help me.”

Other Steps to Improve Memory Care

This simulation was a first step in improving care for patients with dementia. Administrators plan to continue to provide education to all of staff about how to best handle the unique behaviors of those diagnosed with dementia. They also plan to provide training on how to implement interventions that can minimize these behaviors and reduce falls. Keenoy says continued training is crucial, due to the size of the facility’s memory care unit and the number of residents who struggle with the sundowning effect (confusion more prominent later in the day). She and Rachael plan to transform one of the day rooms into a sensory stimulation room, using black out shades, soothing blue lights, tactile objects and fiber optic lamps to create a space that is proven to have positive effects on the mood and behavior of those with dementia. Improving behavior and mood in this population is closely correlated to fall reduction.

Rachael says, “Our hope is that this first step of hands-on training will serve as a cataylst for our team’s growth in a person-centered model of care.”

With so many patients served in the memory care unit at the skilled nursing facility, finding ways to improve their level of care is essential.

For more information about the SKLD Zeeland Memory Care Unit, contact Cheryl Keenoy at 616-772-4641 or