“First of all, if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” — Atticus, in To Kill a Mockingbird
The man stood at the news conference in tattered clothing, unshaven face and overall unkempt appearance. He was the mayor of Salt Lake City, and he had gone undercover living as a homeless man for three days to gain a better understanding of what the homeless in his community experienced.
It wasn’t a publicity stunt; it was the only way he knew to walk in their shoes. It’s similar to the company owners who participate in “Undercover Boss”, a show that places employers secretly beside employees as if they are the new kid on the block. They see firsthand what their employees are dealing with — in work and in their personal lives. Harper Lee struck a chord with the words Atticus spoke — we can never really understand how another person feels if we aren’t able to climb into their skin and walk around in their world.
“It will just take a few minutes,” my friend assured me, as I found another reason to avoid going through her demonstration. It had caught my attention several times, but for some reason, I just hadn’t found the time. Knowing that I already had plans for the afternoon, I assured myself that I’d make plans to participate the next time she was available.
But then I heard it, that voice that speaks when it’s clear you are avoiding doing something you should be doing. “Do this now!” it boomed. Parking my car, I returned to my friend. “OK, here I am!” It was time for me to do what Atticus encouraged and step into someone else’s skin.
The short tour would take six minutes and would allow me to experience what it feels like to have dementia.
First, I slipped a piece of hard plastic in each shoe. “Ouch!” I exclaimed. That was uncomfortable. She explained that the nodules on the plastic would let me feel what it is like to have neuropathy, a common occurrence in dementia patients.
Next, I was given two different gloves — one was thick, one was textured, both feelings a person with dementia might experience. Taking a pair of glasses from her, I explained that I needed to keep my own glasses on, but I was quickly reminded that when a person has dementia, they often misplace their glasses and experience vision like the glasses I would be wearing, which simulated Macular Degeneration.
As I stepped into the makeshift apartment, she slipped headphones over my ears and began giving me instructions. In my most pleasant whiny voice, I explained that I couldn’t hear her very well, pulling the covering from one of my ears. She gently pushed it back and smiles. Hearing issues are often a problem for people with dementia.
Well, great. I had been given directions for my tasks to accomplish, and I had heard only about half of what she said. “ _______ electric bill, ________ 3 pills, fold and put away ______.” I know all about using context clues, so I trusted those skills would get me out of this jam.
A woman stood at the kitchen counter watching me, taking notes of my behavior. I felt as if I might cry as I realized I just had no idea what I should be doing. In this new skin, I felt horribly panicked. I found some pill bottles but wasn’t sure which three pills to retrieve, and the gloves made the task very difficult.
Then I saw some bills and found an envelope that said “electric bill” and put it under my arm because who knew what I was really supposed to do with it. Finally, I looked for things to fold. I saw some towels in a basket and folded all of them. I was near tears when I was told my time was up.
(Oddly enough, a person with dementia feels this way often because they miss what someone has asked them to do and feel panicked about it. I was covering all the bases.)
Removing the glasses, the headphones, and the gloves, I quickly removed the hard plastic from my shoes and felt such relief and guilt. I could walk away from that skin I experienced, but someone with dementia or Macular Degeneration cannot.
Those six minutes had a profound impact on me, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to feel what people I love are feeling, to not be able to see the way they are unable to see.
Whether it’s someone living as a homeless person for a few days, working as one of the employees for a few weeks or wearing the skin of a dementia patient for six minutes, it is imperative that we take the opportunity to try to imagine what it feels like to be in different skin.
If you are straight, imagine what it must be like to be gay and feel the pain of being treated as if you are inferior. If you are white-skinned, imagine what it must feel like to have darker skin and the pre-conceived opinions that will follow you around in the eyes of the people you meet. Are you wealthy? Spend some time imagining how you would feel if you knew that you had only enough money to choose between paying the rent and buying groceries and gas.
Most of us live in a bubble thinking everyone else is just like we are, until we discover that society is a beautiful mix of all kinds of people — brown, white, straight, gay, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, pro-life, pro-choice, Ford, Mercedes, healthy, sick, ambulatory, wheelchair-bound — you get the picture.
If we want to get along with all kinds of folks, not just the ones who are like us, we need to imagine what it’s like to walk around in their skin. Only then can we really begin to understand people and hope to be understood.
Senior Helpers offers the Virtual Dementia Tour in Middle Tennessee. Be sure to check where you live for similar options.