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From first recognizing you’re hungry to remembering where the bread is stored, there are more steps involved in making a sandwich than most people realize.

Considering those implicit steps and the difficulty they pose for people living with dementia was one of the lessons of a Baraboo High School health class Friday led by Gina Laack, a dementia care specialist with the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Eagle Country.

“Simple activities like making a sandwich or getting dressed that we think are so simple can become very daunting and difficult for individuals living with dementia,” Laack said.

Through 90-minute sessions, students in Julie Jensen’s six 10th-grade health classes became the first high school students in Wisconsin to be trained as “Dementia Friends” on Thursday and Friday, according to Laack. The program, originally started in the United Kingdom, came to the U.S. as Dementia Friends USA and seeks to inform more people about what it can be like to live with dementia and how to help.

The Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute adopted the program last year and trained 38 Master Trainers, including Laack, last fall. After the local resource center contacted the Baraboo School District, Jensen took up the offer to bring a trainer to her students, noting that the topic fit in well with the health curriculum.

“I think dementia is an issue in our society and is becoming more and more of an issue,” Jensen said. “A lot of these students are actually seeing this and dealing with it in their own homes and their own families, and to give them an education on how to communicate better with their loved ones is really a good skill to have.”

Laack taught five key messages of Dementia Friends:

  • Dementia is not a normal part of aging
  • Dementia is caused by diseases of the brain
  • Dementia is not just about having memory problems
  • It is possible to have a good quality of life with dementia
  • There’s more to a person than dementia

Activities during the session encouraged students to put themselves in the shoes of someone with dementia. Practicing empathy in that way provides a valuable experience, Jensen said.

In one, several volunteers were given secret hypothetical identities. Starting in a straight row, they were then instructed to take a step forward each time Laack read a task they thought their character could manage, such as make coffee without assistance.

At the end, she revealed that they were all given the same identity — a 73-year-old who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease six years ago — despite some of the students still standing in their original positions and others several paces ahead.

“This is to show that everyone with dementia is unique. If you’ve seen one person with dementia, you’ve only seen one person with dementia,” Laack said. “Look at where they’re staggered. Some of them thought that they could do certain things, and some of them thought that they couldn’t.”

She hopes to bring the training to other area schools next year. In the meantime, she’ll help lead a hands-on simulation called Dementia Live at Baraboo’s St. Clare Hospital in June for the general public. A headset, gloves and goggles will temporarily alter participants’ senses in a 7-minute experience simulating what it’s like to have dementia, followed by an informational session.

“We’re just excited that the students have embraced it and want to learn about it and that Mrs. Jensen wanted to learn about it and bring it to her classroom,” Laack said. “Our goal is to try to help reduce the stigma and spread awareness.”

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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