Roseville firefighters learn empathy with dementia simulations

Mike Munzenrider photo • Roseville firefighter Chris Rice readied himself for a dementia simulation May 9 at Cherrywood Pointe of Roseville at Lexington with help from Roseville communications specialist Carolyn Curti. Rice and 16 others from the Roseville Fire Department went through the simulation the first week of May at the senior community across the street from the city’s fire station to better understand what it’s like for people who have dementia.

Mike Munzenrider photo • Cherrywood Pointe of Roseville at Lexington sales and outreach director, Jay Benedict, who also facilitates the memory care support group at the senior housing community, gave Roseville firefighter Josh Waylander instructions for a dementia simulation May 9.

Mike Munzenrider photo • Firefighters Waylander and Kevin O’Neill go through the dementia simulation in a dim apartment at Cherrywood Pointe. Benedict said that many folks, so disoriented by the goggles and other elements of the simulation, fail to turn on the lights.

The dementia simulation at Cherrywood Pointe of Roseville at Lexington is decidedly low tech, but it’s effective virtual reality, nonetheless.

Work goggles with modified lenses simulate macular degeneration and blurred vision. Gardening gloves limit the ability to do fine motor skills; just to be sure, two fingers on the dominant hand are taped together.

The most difficult part of the simulation — depending on whom you ask — is either the headphones that pipe in distracting noises, doorbells and chattering conversations, or the handful of sunflower seeds put in the shoes to give the feeling of neuropathy.

The second week of May, Cherrywood’s sales and outreach director, Jay Benedict, who also facilitates the memory care support group at the senior housing community, hosted firefighters from the Roseville Fire Department through three days of dementia simulations.

The simulation, which was developed by Ebenezer Care Center, aims to “handicap all your senses,” Benedict told a group of four firefighters as they readied themselves to field a number of tasks in an apartment set up for the experience.

Fire Chief Tim O’Neill, who had gone through the simulation the day prior, explained that the majority of calls the fire department receives, 72 percent, are for medical emergencies, with the remainder being for fire calls. On average, the department fields about 14 calls a day.

With three other senior housing communities in the city that also have residents who experience dementia, along with lots of elderly residents who still live in their Roseville homes, O’Neill said the simulation is a timely experience for his firefighters.

“We pretty routinely respond to calls where this will be valuable,” he said.


Learning empathy

Taken at face value, the tasks prescribed by Benedict for everyone who runs through the simulation are quite simple: take your medicine, put on a particular shirt, set the table.

But as each element of the simulation is put on, a sense of isolation and difficulty in concentration sets in. Benedict tells each participant six chores to do — it’s tough to hear him over the racket from the headphones — and then leads them upstairs, asking a banal question along the way to further sow confusion.

As firefighter Kevin O’Neill waited for his turn as part of the second group to do the simulation — the 11-year department vet is the chief’s nephew — he said he hoped to get a better understanding of what it’s like for some of the people he encounters on calls.

“I want better understanding when we go to medical calls — better empathy for that patient,” Kevin O’Neill said. “To actually witness that for ourselves is a big thing.”

Chief O’Neill said the hardest chore for him was buttoning his shirt — he simply gave up out of frustration.

Assistant Fire Chief David Brosnahan echoed his superior.

“All [the chores] had a level of difficulty that just become more and more difficult” as frustration mounted, Brosnahan said, pointing out that the toughest chore he was tasked with was making the bed, which he said simply couldn’t do right.


The things you take for granted

Beyond the 17 firefighters from Roseville FD who went through the simulation, which is still a pilot program, Benedict said he’s also guided a number of caregivers of people with dementia through it, too. 

Next up for him, he said, are the 50 or so Cherrywood Pointe staffers who will go through the experience.

Of all the people he’s put through it, Benedict said, none have done better than doing four of the six tasks correctly. One participant forgot to eat, which was an assigned task; Benedict said people with dementia can forget to eat and suffer from malnutrition.

Others who’ve gone through the simulation have botched taking their medicine — regiments of numerous daily pills for some people are not uncommon — something Benedict said can have serious real-life consequences.

Following his run through the chores, firefighter Chris Rice said the experience only backed what he’d heard from people in the field — “a lot of the simple things that you take for granted” become very difficult, or they’re forgotten altogether.

“‘I’ve been doing this for 40 years and now I don’t know how to set the alarm,’” Rice said, channeling people he’s encountered on calls.


In and out

O’Neill said the simulation offers his firefighters a unique experience beyond their usual training.

“We practice a lot, but putting ourselves in [other peoples’] perspective is quite different,” he said.

Upstairs for Kevin O’Neill and firefighter Josh Waylander’s go-through the simulation, the apartment where they did their chores was dark and music blared from the TV.

“Of course there’s more noise” one of them groaned.

The two worked side-by-side carrying out their various tasks as Benedict silently observed with a clipboard. 

They were nearly done when the fire chief calmly came into the room. “Accident with injuries, you guys have to go,” he said.

The two took off the simulation gear and in short order departing sirens were heard outside. Someone commented they’d carried a bit of the virtual experience with them — they still had sunflower seeds in their shoes.


– Mike Munzenrider can be reached at or 651-748-7813

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