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Empathizing with Alzheimer's

By Trisha Coder

You're walking on what feels like tiny needles in your shoes, while wearing headphones that play a constant buzz. Large, bulky gloves limit the use of your hands, and you struggle to see through sunglasses with stickers on the lenses. You're led into a dim room pulsing with strobe lights and are asked to complete five simple tasks. You can only hear a few words because of the buzzing and can't complete the tasks.

This 10-minute simulation reflects what more than 5 million Americans over age 65 experience daily, living with Alzheimer's disease. Health science major Faith Lopez-Flores '19 participated in the simulation on Community Building Day at the assisted-living facility at Rockwood Hawthorne, near Whitworth. As president of the Alzheimer's Awareness Club at Whitworth, she wanted to feel what daily life is like for people coping with the disease.

Lopez-Flores has been working with residents at Rockwood through her internship with Generation Connect, a program that promotes intergenerational relationships between youth and elders through oral history. Lopez-Flores created two-minute videos that feature photos of the residents' families. When the videos play on iPads provided by Generation Connect, residents hear a family member's voice, sharing memories the photos evoke.

"If the residents feel really anxious or are wandering, [staff] can play these videos for them," Lopez-Flores says. "The videos usually will reduce some of that anxiety."

Lopez-Flores plans to work as a physician assistant, as does the vice president of the club, Garrett Westling '19. His great-grandmother had Alzheimer's.

"You have to understand that they're doing these actions because they truly aren't aware," Westling says. "Their brain cognition is just not there. You have to give them patience and not fault them for something they're not capable of understanding right now in life."

Lopez-Flores and Westling are passionate leaders who have grown the Alzheimer's Awareness Club to 14 members. Rather than attending weekly meetings, members seek to attend the many community events and town halls in Spokane, to help raise awareness about the disease and to let others know how they can support those in their lives who have Alzheimer's.

"Even if we're not scientific researchers, we can still be with our loved ones," Lopez-Flores says. "We'll never fully understand what they're going through, but we can be more aware of how much they are being affected."

This story appears in the fall 2018 issue of Whitworth Today magazine, available here.