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Putting Themselves In The Shoes Of The Elderly, Ottawa Students Face Challenges Of Normal Living

Roxie Hammill
Ottawa High School Students Braydon Beaty, 17, left, and Trenidy Batten, 17, experience the challenges faced by elderly people with physical impairments.

It was just past breakfast time at the faux nursing-home cafeteria on the Neosho County Community College Ottawa campus, and I was about to find out what it’s like to be a resident.

“Are you ready?” teacher Kristine Martinez said as she delved into a hard-shell suitcase for what looked like a bullet-proof vest. She held it and I ducked my head into it. It’s heavy, about 20 pounds.

Next came wrist weights, ankle weights, straps to restrict my elbow and knee movement, a neckpiece to limit head motion. All were followed by a set of glasses to mimic glaucoma. Forty pounds of gear in all.

“It’s not so you can feel like what it’s like to be heavier,” Martinez said. “It’s so you can understand the balance impairment and why people fall.”

Credit Roxie Hammill
Teacher Kristine Martinez gives instructions to the author, who is wearing vision-impairing glasses.

She was right. All those weights and motion restrictors were unnerving as I headed into the lunchroom tasks Martinez set out for me. I definitely wouldn’t feel good about walking down the hall to the stairs in this getup. The idea of opening a plastic utensil packet and pouring salt and pepper onto a napkin didn’t sound easy either.

Neosho has three suits designed to help people experience firsthand the obstacles faced by elderly people with physical impairments. Before the novel coronavirus curtailed them, the suits were used mostly in classes for high school students in Ottawa, Lawrence and Chanute interested in health care careers.

And until classes were cut short in March, the equipment seemed to be having its desired effect.

“I think it just made me feel more empathetic for people who are unhealthy or have an impairment,” said Samantha Moore, an Ottawa High School student in a class made up of juniors and seniors.

Gov. Laura Kelly’s decision to close the school buildings through the end of the semester means the 20 high schoolers won’t be returning after spring break, and they definitely won’t be doing the clinical part, which includes working at a local nursing home. But because of a federal grant, the college was still able to buy the kits. And they’ll still be around when the pandemic is over.

Challenges of doing normal things

Neosho officials believe they’ll be a valuable asset in helping young people relate to the elderly.

“I think it helps them to be empathetic of what a challenge it is” for the elderly, said Tracy Rhine, director of the Allied Health Program at the college. “It makes a young person who doesn’t have many limitations understand the challenges of just doing normal daily living things.”

Empathy may not come naturally to teenagers with unlimited eyesight, hearing and mobility. As Rhine said, “They’re in the best shape of their lives right now.”

Martinez considers herself lucky to have the suits, which are made by Realityworks of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Normally the kit, which runs $2,700 on the company’s website, would have been outside of her budget. The cost of one suit would have been equivalent to what the college usually spends for a semester of teaching materials.

But Neosho got them through a federal Perkins Grant, which focuses on technical education programs for school districts and two-year colleges.

The school took delivery late last fall, but didn’t begin using them until the second semester started this year. The plan was for 60 to 80 students on a variety of career paths to experience them. Among them were those studying to be certified nurse aides, emergency medical technicians, occupational therapists and others taking various life support courses.

Credit Roxie Hammill
Ottawa High School students Hanna Blanco, 18, left, and Brenna Espinoza, 18, experience what it's like when your food is hard to see.

The teens from several different high schools in Martinez’s class were all interested in health care careers.

Like many health care training facilities, Neosho County Community College has a simulation lab with beds and mannequins. The “geri sim” suit, which is more a set of components than an actual suit, gets students’ heads a little more into the space where older people live.

The vision-impairing glasses are Martinez’s favorite. The kit comes with six that have lenses with different parts shaded or blacked out to mimic glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, unilateral retinal detachment, macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa and cataracts.

Martinez often has to remind her students that nursing home residents may not hear or see well enough to know when they are being addressed.

“You tell them, ‘You need to be right in front of your resident. Make sure they know you’re talking to them,’ and then they put those glasses on and they say, ‘Oh, that makes sense now,’” she said.

Off balance

The simulation gear Neosho is using has been on the market for about five years. Some 550 schools and organizations across the country are now using it, according to Realityworks marketing coordinator Kati Stacy. Similar suits are offered by other companies and are used by architects trying to make public spaces friendlier to people with mobility issues.

Some kits come with headphones to simulate hearing impairment and gloves that can set hands shaking to imitate palsy. The Neosho set doesn’t have those, but it does have a walker.

Students can choose whether they want to wear the suit – and most do. But they don’t wear all the equipment for the whole class. For one thing, it takes forever to get all of it on. For another, it throws you off balance. Martinez has noticed that most people struggle not to stoop a little when they’ve got it on.

Wearing it for an hour would feel oppressive, which is kind of the point.

“I’ve felt that vest and holy smokes, I wouldn’t want to wear it for an hour,” Martinez said.

The plan was to use the simulation gear in specific settings that the students would encounter when they did their clinicals later. During the latter half of the semester, students were to have gone 10 at a time to a local nursing home to help care for the residents there. The class requires 25 hours of such hands-on experience.

Preparation for those clinicals was already in progress the day I visited. The first business of the day was helping a classmate negotiate a breakfast of scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage and juice or chocolate milk. The students took turns wearing the glasses – or a blindfold when there weren’t enough to go around – and feeding each other. It did not look easy.

Afterward, they admitted it was confusing to know what was happening when they couldn’t see which direction the food was coming from.

Then came my part of the exercise. Once the suit was on, a student was given the job of guiding my weighted wrists and stiffened elbows through shirt sleeves. She did the first button. Then she put some garden gloves on me to simulate the lack of nerve sensation and loss of fine motor control,  and told me to do the rest.

Credit Roxie Hammill
The author, wearing visually impairing glasses, tries to button her coat.

I got through just one button, but it took so long I sensed the class was beginning to lose interest.

Martinez can think of other exercises she might do with the suit one day. Class members could practice getting around with the walker, or even trying to get around the furniture in the sim lab. Or it might be interesting to put it on and find out what it would be like to get the right medicine out of a pill container.

She hopes the experience will give students an emotional connection to the feelings of nursing home residents, who may have been independent for years before suddenly being incapacitated by a stroke.

“Just look how long your world is taking, how long just normal everyday things are taking on just normal stuff that we take for granted,” Martinez told her class.

Better care all around

The message seemed to be getting through. There was a lot of joking around as the class wrapped up.

“I thought it was easy,” one student said to laughter.

But then they talked about how the experience had affected them.

“I think we understand it a little bit better,” said Brenna Espinoza, 18, of Ottawa. “Obviously I don’t live like that so I don’t understand it completely, but it gives you more of their point of view – so you understand why they don’t want to do certain stuff or why them may feel the way they do.”

Alexis Williams, 17, of Ottawa, agreed. “I feel like I’ll be a lot more patient and give them time to go through the motions like we did ourselves.”

Hanna Blanco, 18, of Ottawa, said: “It makes me think I don’t want to put my grandma in the nursing home. I just want to take care of her myself.”

Students who sign up for the class often mention altruistic motives, Rhine said. Some have a relative who needs care, or have been through a health crisis themselves and want to follow the footsteps of the nurses and doctors who took care of them.

Braydon Beaty, 17, of Ottawa, wants to follow in the footsteps of his father, who is a hospice nurse. “I’m doing what he does,” he said.

Whatever the reason, the experience of empathy will lead to better care for the elderly all around, Martinez said.

“I am working really hard with these young people now because I want them to have an interest and a love for taking care of the elderly – because I’m going to be an old lady one of these days,” she said. “If you have enthusiastic teachers and compassionate teachers, your likelihood of being enthusiastic and compassionate is much greater, and the outcomes are better for the people receiving the care.”

Roxie Hammill is a freelance writer who lives in Lenexa. You can reach her on Twitter at @roxiehammill.

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