My Terrifying Encounter with Dementia

Recently I engaged in one of the most sobering experience of my life.

The NFL Alumni Association (client) developed a partnership with Validus Senior Living earlier this year to provide long-term care for former players. The NFL Alumni chose Validus as their partner for several reasons, but one of the driving forces was their expertise in dealing with dementia and their ability to provide individual care for our guys. As a result of this partnership, I’ve learned a great deal about dementia and senior living care over the past few months.

There may not be a more important issue for retired NFL players and their families right now, than dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s. If you were tuned into 60 Minutes this week, you saw this topic boiling up as a national discussion. Certainly it isn’t the only issue retired players face, however there is none like it… I know that after my experience today.

In the back of my mind, I secretly wonder what the real impact will be on my life after playing football for so long. What will be the long-term effect of the six concussions I had? Or was it seven? Maybe it was ten… depends if I count all the times I saw stars or had my bell rung – then it was more like – I have no idea how many times.

Would I trade any of it? No. But after today, it sure scares the shit out of me.

They told me that I should experience the virtual dementia simulation to get a better understanding of what it’s like to have dementia. That it would give me a new perspective on what it’s really like to have the disease, and more importantly, what it’s like for spouses and family members who deal with it.

I do not want my family to see me this way. Ever. I was extremely vulnerable, and the reality that someday I will not be a strong and confident man shook me up. And the worse part, I won’t even know it when or if it happens.

If this is my future, and this is how it ends… I don’t know if it is even worth living. Might as well donate my organs and give someone else a chance to live.

The simulation involved wearing a few apparatuses and I was given a short list of tasks to complete. Nothing overly techy about the devices I wore, or the instructions I was given. I wore some goggles and headphones to disrupt my senses and was put in a dark room to complete my tasks. But as is the case with dementia, my senses were altered.

As soon as we began the simulation, noise came though the headphones and the instructor began giving me instructions and then before I knew what was happening, I was lost in a strange place; confused and unsure of myself. I remembering thinking, this is just a simulation, I got this… But I didn’t have it.

It’s just a simulation, it’s not real, I kept trying to convince myself. But it took a hold of me. It was real.

If dementia is the outcome of using my helmet as a ramrod basically every time someone tried to tackle me, I’m glad I got to the NFL even if it were only for a short time. The feeling I had the first time I played in an NFL game, is one that I still recall and can enjoy. I’d like to think that I have worked hard to experience some success in other areas of my life, have done some good things and have traveled to some interesting places. Let me tell you, none of that mattered today… and frankly, going forward, not sure how much any of it really mattered in the first place.

You get perspective when you experience what it is like to have dementia as I did today. You get an education; and maybe most importantly, you get real grateful that you do not have dementia today. You also get a bit emotional and thankful there are people like the folks at Validus Senior Living and Fusion Health Care who chose this line of work. We need them. I need them. I hope I don’t, but there’s a one in three chance that I will.

We all probably know someone with dementia, may have interacted with someone, or even cared for someone with dementia. I have a new perspective today about it. A new hope for research, a sense of responsibility to talk about it, and a sense of urgency to act now that my work involves it. What I mostly feel though after experiencing this disease today….

Wait, where am I?  I’m scared.  I don’t remember….

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