By Andrew Strecker, Senior Community Reporter
Westborough – First responders at the Westborough Fire Department underwent a new training recently to better treat individuals suffering from dementia.
“It’s estimated that one in ten people over the age of 65 have some degree of dementia, and it’s one in three for those age 85 and older,” said Shelby Marshall, training facilitator and co-owner of Right at Home of Eastern Worcester County, a Westborough-based company that provides senior care services.
“The statistics right here in Westborough are staggering,” said Marshall, explaining that about 20 percent of the population age 65 and over in Westborough are estimated to experience some degree of dementia, a gradual progression of the breakdown of brain function that includes Alzheimer’s disease.
At a training held Feb. 27 at the Westborough Fire Department headquarters, eight firefighters, paramedics and EMTs donned specially designed gear that included gloves, glasses and headphones while being assigned several tasks to accomplish, such as opening a book to a specific page, matching pairs of socks and putting them in a basket and buttoning a particular colored shirt and folding it.
“The gear is designed to temporarily alter participants’ sensory abilities and simulate the brain changes that occur with dementia,” said Marshall. “There are many common challenges in the disease process. Gloves diminish one’s sense of touch and fine motor abilities, and the eyewear restricts peripheral vision. As dementia progresses, words and sounds may come across as garbled, distorted and meaningless, so the headsets play distorted sounds to mimic this change.”
Immediately following the tasks, the first responder participants described the experience as “stressful,” “frustrating” and “white noise and sensory overload.”
Firefighter and paramedic Corey Anderson called the training “a very good simulation” and said it drove home and refreshed a lot that he had learned in previous trainings.
“It gave me a greater appreciation for how much more difficult it is” to be someone experiencing symptoms of dementia, said firefighter and paramedic Chris Weinwurm. He called the training “well worth it.”
After the gear session, Marshall outlined how to approach someone who may suffer from symptoms of dementia, as helmets and other equipment can be intimidating.
“You will have to get creative a lot of times,” she said.
Marshall also explained the importance of communication and advocating for patients as they are transferred to other levels of care, such as a busy emergency room, where a patient’s dementia symptoms and needs can easily be misdiagnosed and lost in a hectic environment.
The training, called Dementia Live, was offered for free by Right at Home of Eastern Worcester County and is a component of the COME 2 B Dementia Friendly community initiative in Westborough. The community initiative is a program of BayPath Elder Services, headquartered in Marlborough.
“We want Westborough to be a place where everyone can age, regardless,” said Marshall, who is also the co-chair of the committee heading up the initiative. “A big part of it is creating safe spaces,” such as restaurants and hair salons, places that most of us navigate easily, but those with dementia can find overwhelming, she said.
“The initiative also offers an opportunity to formalize a dementia registry” for first responders and better community awareness in Westborough, said Marshall. Neighboring communities Northborough, Hudson and Marlborough, all part of the dementia friendly community initiative have already created dementia registry databases.