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UNI 'dementia house' helps visitors deepen understanding

Undergraduate students helping in the Dementia Simulation House on UNI’s campus.
Undergraduate students helping in the Dementia Simulation House on UNI’s campus.

At first, stepping into the University of Northern Iowa's "dementia house" isn't anything striking. The unassuming ranch house is filled with simple furniture, pictures on the walls and a full stock of household items and appliances. It might even remind you of your grandparent's home — and it should.

That's because the house is a simulation. Once inside, visitors are strapped into narrow-sighted goggles that limit peripheral vision and given a pair of gardening gloves and headphones. The gloves are bulky; the headphones emit a constant, droning cacophony of voices and noise.

Then, the visitor is given their tasks.

 IPR's Danielle Gehr attempts to operate a vacuum in a dementia house simulation. She wears a pair of goggles, headphones and gardening gloves that all make the process more difficult.
Charity Nebbe
IPR News
IPR's Danielle Gehr attempts to operate a vacuum in a dementia house simulation.

It might be to fold a shirt or to sort a week's worth of pills, but the simple tasks are made frustratingly difficult while wearing the additional gear and moving around an unfamiliar space. All the while, a UNI student acting as a "frustrated caretaker" gives exasperated directions. After about five minutes, time is up.

The experience is often described by visitors as "overwhelming" — and that's the point. The dementia house was created to help visitors empathize with the daily struggles experienced by people living with dementia. It's the only full house-style dementia simulator in the state and might be the only one of its kind in the nation.

It was created by UNI professor Elaine Eshbaugh in 2022 and is run by the gerontology program. Students work at the house as simulated caregivers and hold conversations with visitors during the "debriefing" process that happens after the simulation ends.

One of the things I hear frequently is 'Oh, this is one of those diseases that's harder on the family,' and always want to say, 'How do you know?'
Elaine Eshbaugh, UNI professor, creator of the dementia house

Eshbaugh's end goal? To deepen understanding to make the daily lives of those living with dementia better.

An estimated 6.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, and that number is growing fast, according to the Alzheimer's Association. The organization reports that as the size of the U.S. population aged 65 and older continues to grow, so too will the number and proportion of Americans with Alzheimer’s or other dementias.

Some visitors come to the dementia house because they're interested in seeing what it's like, while others come to deepen their understanding of what a loved one is experiencing. Eshbaugh says the more people who can be put in the shoes of a person living with dementia, the better.

"One of the things that bothers me about how we think about dementia is very few people think about what it's like for the person who has dementia," she said. "One of the things I hear frequently is 'Oh, this is one of those diseases that's harder on the family,' and always want to say, 'How do you know?'"

The goggles visitors are given to wear simulate what it's like to live without good peripheral vision, which naturally decreases with age. The gloves are meant to replicate how a dementia-affected brain begins to become detached from senses like touch. The noise-spewing headphones demonstrate how a dementia-affected brain cannot easily distinguish background noise from conversations or other sounds they should be focusing on.

"The headphones are supposed to simulate this inability to prioritize the information coming in," explained UNI student Carly Spies, who works at the house. "With dementia, we say there really is no white noise. Anything that's in the background is really brought more to the forefront in the dementia brain."

 IPR Talk of Iowa host Charity Nebbe sorts pills with difficulty, wearing gloves and goggles in the dementia simulation at UNI.
Danielle Gehr
IPR News
IPR Talk of Iowa host Charity Nebbe sorts pills in the dementia simulation at UNI.

Performing the simulation in an actual house was important to Eshbaugh, who explained that most dementia simulations take place in conference rooms, nursing home rooms or hospital rooms. She said this can perpetuate misleading assumptions because the majority of people with dementia live in their own homes.

"It implies, 'Oh, you get dementia, you go to a nursing home,' and that's certainly not the case," she said.

The dementia house is decorated primarily with donated furniture and photos — many of which were donated by families of loved ones who died of dementia.

"It was kind of a community effort and that really meant a lot to me as well," Eshbaugh said. "It also meant a lot to the space because I think if we had gone to, say, IKEA and bought all new furniture, it wouldn't have worked."

Dementia is on the rise in the state, as well as nationally. Coupled with a shortage of caregivers, Eshbaugh says she wants her dementia house to highlight a need for patience and understanding when it comes to dementia and creating a world where people living with it can remain part of their communities and live normally for as long as possible.

She built it — and people came.

"It's exceeded every expectation I've ever had in terms of the interest in it," she said.

Josie Fischels is a Digital News producer at Iowa Public Radio. She is a 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa’s school of journalism where she also majored in theater arts (and, arguably, minored in the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan). Previously, she interned with the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado, and NPR in Washington, D.C.
Dani Gehr is a producer for River to River and Talk of Iowa. Dani came to Iowa from her hometown in the northwest suburbs of Chicago to attend Iowa State University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in journalism, international studies and French. Before coming to IPR, Dani covered local government in Story County for the Ames Tribune and Des Moines Register.
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa