What’s it like to have dementia? Presenter Helen McDermott and Radio Norfolk’s Nick Conrad found out

Helen McDermott and Nick Conrad wear GERT suits, simulating aging and dementia, as they shop in Morrisons. Picture: Denise Bradley Helen McDermott and Nick Conrad wear GERT suits, simulating aging and dementia, as they shop in Morrisons. Picture: Denise Bradley

Friday, May 9, 2014
2:36 PM

We often joke about waking up feeling decades older than we actually are, but how does it feel when the ageing process is accelerated and you gain 30 years in less than 15 minutes? Presenters Helen McDermott and Nick Conrad sped through the ageing process to see how the simplest of tasks can feel like climbing Mount Everest.

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Helen McDermott and Nick Conrad wear GERT suits, simulating aging and dementia, as they shop in Morrisons. Picture: Denise BradleyHelen McDermott and Nick Conrad wear GERT suits, simulating aging and dementia, as they shop in Morrisons. Picture: Denise Bradley

Our game recruits were Helen McDermott and Radio Norfolk’s Nick Conrad, who arrived full of beans, excited about their challenge and who were only mildly disconcerted when faced with the disclaimer they had to sign before they were strapped into the GERT suit.

The 20kg suit can’t be worn by anyone with the following health issues: back pain, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, visual or hearing impairments, dizziness, vertigo, difficulties with balance, conditions affecting energy levels or those that affect breathing. In turn, the guinea pigs are told that following their experience, they may well need to be de-briefed – people are sometimes so depressed at the thought of the ageing process that they turn into Peter Pans that never want to get old.

“Apparently, I’m about to age 30 years in the next five minutes,” said Helen, “which means I might very well find myself in a wooden casket. I’m glad I’m watching Nick get dressed up first – it gives me a few minutes when we’re exactly the same age.”

Nick Conrad, 30, was transformed into a 60-year-old, albeit one that looked as if he could be an edgy DJ at Glastonbury, an extra in a remake of Tron or a paintball fanatic who has wandered off course.

“I can’t bend my knees. I can’t bend my elbows. I already feel tired and all I’ve done is just stand here and talk to you about my knees!” he said.

“The physical difference is amazing – everything is a huge effort. And bear in mind, these are just physical restrictions. People with dementia are also dealing with other issues. I can see how even the thought of a shopping trip would be daunting.”

As Nick got used to being 20kg heavier, about a fifth as mobile, hideously short-sighted and virtually deaf, Helen began the ageing process.

“Now that I’ve seen how Nick has reacted to the suit, I’m a bit nervous,” she said.

A few minutes later, she – like Nick – was relying on lip-reading to communicate, struggling to walk and feeling almost claustrophobic in the suits.

The pair walked to pick up their shopping baskets before being given lists by Sarah. They began their task, watched by dozens of bemused shoppers in Morrisons.

“I feel an all-over fatigue. Everything is a huge effort – even reading the list is difficult and it’s hard to pick things up from shelves or even read the labels on the shelves to see if you’re in the right area,” said Nick, whose grandmother was diagnosed with dementia two years ago.

“I’ve always had a respect for people who have dementia but while I tried to understand what things might be like for them, I couldn’t really understand it. Now you can realise the challenges that people face, whether they have mobility issues, dementia or both.”

Nick said that his grandmother was in the early stages of dementia and had a good support system but that she – and her loved ones – had concerns for the future.

“With other illnesses there is sometimes the feeling that there will be periods of relief when you don’t feel bad, but with dementia it’s a condition where you can never predict how someone will be from one day to the next,” he said.

“I wanted to have this experience because I wanted to know what the future may hold. It was disorientating and a bit worrying, but it gives me a whole new respect for people who are living with dementia. It really makes you think.”

Helen – who has asthma – found the heavy suit left her breathless. Normally fit and healthy, she had to sit in a wheelchair for a rest after one aisle and said the experience had been “a real eye-opener”.

“You say that you feel old all the time, but I wearing this suit, I literally do feel old,” she said.

“It makes you realise that it’s a young person’s world and it’s designed for young people and not people who find it difficult to walk, to pick things off shelves or to see or hear properly. I found it very difficult, actually, far more difficult than I thought it would be.

“But it does make you realise what people live with. And hopefully it will make me think a little bit harder about what can be done to help.”

Dementia Awareness Week 2014 is from May 18 to 24.

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