Geriatric Simulator Teaches Empathy to ACC’s Nurse Aide Students

Above, Nurse Aide Dept. Head Rhonda Pierce (right) observes as student Ana Pacheco (left) assists disguised student Silvia Tenesaca to walk using the geriatric simulation equipment.

When it comes to caring for the elderly, empathy is an important trait for those working as nurse aides. Yet sometimes their youth can prevent a full understanding of how older patients feel.

Inside the classrooms of the Nurse Aide program at Alamance Community College, that barrier may be falling thanks to special equipment purchased from federal funding provided by The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Because Nurse Aide students have been unable to participate in clinicals at nursing homes since the COVID-19 pandemic barred in-person visits with patients, it was important to replicate those missed experiences in a meaningful way for the students. Geriatric simulator equipment seemed the perfect solution, said Rhonda Pierce, Nurse Aide Department Head.

The tools were purchased from RealCare ™, a division of Realityworks, a manufacturer of geriatric sensory simulation equipment. The company provided a trainer who came to the ACC campus to teach the product to Pierce and her students.

“Our students already are empathetic to the elderly patients they work with, but this equipment allows them to feel what it is like to have aging issues,” said Rhonda Pierce, Nurse Aide Department Head. “It allows them to experience first-hand what it’s like to struggle to get out of bed due to arthritis, and so many other age-related conditions. At their young age, the students just aren’t normally going to understand everything the elderly go through. But I can tell you that they are loving this experience.”

The RealCare ™ Geriatric Simulator includes a sensitivity suit and complete curriculum to help participants understand the common physical effects of aging. Included in each kit is a weight vest, cervical collar, wrist weights, elbow restraints, ankle weights, knee restraints, gloves, and visual impairment glasses – all engineered to simulate a variety of ailments common to the elderly.

For example, the glasses can simulate cataracts, glaucoma, Retinitis Pigmentosa, and other serious visual impairments. The Hearing Impairment Simulator, earphones worn by the student and operated by an instructor via a handheld controller, replicates Tinnitus, Dementia, general hearing loss, and high-frequency hearing loss. The weighted vest and gloves simulate the difficulty of arthritis and general body aches associated with old age.

During their classes this fall, the students take turns wearing the various equipment as they move through the hallways of ACC’s Powell Building, guided by a Nurse Aide classmate. For these students, nearly all in their twenties, the experience has already become an eye-opener.

“One thing we miss out on in clinicals is discovering what it’s like for actual patients,” said student Logan Hadley. “Wearing the goggles and earphones and weighted vest shows us exactly what they’re going through. Going through this experience will let us know what they [the elderly] need.”

“It makes us more sympathetic of what they go through on a daily basis,” said Dawn Cluff. “Using this equipment ourselves, I learned that it was hard to breathe as I walked.”

“It really makes me feel like one of the patients,” said student Silvia Tenesaca.

One student using cataract-simulation goggles said, “I found that I have to turn my head more in order to see around me, or stare more intently on what’s in front of me. That kind of long-term vision problem is not something I could have understood being a young person.”

Pierce said that even when the students are permitted to return to the nursing homes, the geriatric simulation equipment will continue to be valuable for the students.

“We’ll plan for the students over the next few years to use the equipment here in class before we head to the nursing homes and the real patients,” she said. “We always want to build upon the empathy our students already have within themselves. These tools will help increase empathy in a very real way. This has really hit it out of the ballpark for them.”

Above, student Logan Hadley (left) adjusts the control box for the hearing simulator worn by student Mikayla Venable.