They were stooped, hobbled, disoriented, fumbling around the house. They got confused in the bathtub and struggled up stairs that seemed to swim before them.
“Oh, it hurts,” said Noh Hyun-ho, sinking to the ground.
“I thought I was going to die,” said Yook Seo-hyun.
There was surprisingly little giggling, considering that Hyun-ho, Seo-hyun and the others were actually perfectly healthy 11- to 13-year-old children. But they had strapped on splints, weighted harnesses and fogged-up glasses, and were given tasks like “Doorknob Experience” and “Bathroom Experience,” all to help them feel what it was like to be old, frail or demented.
“Even though they are smiling for us, every day, 24 hours, is difficult for them,” Jeong Jae-hee, 12, said she learned. “They lose their memory and go back to childhood.”
It is part of a remarkable South Korean campaign to cope with an exploding problem: Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. As one of the world’s fastest-aging countries, with nearly 9 percent of its population over 65 already afflicted, South Korea has opened a “War on Dementia,” spending money and shining floodlights on a disease that is, here as in many places, riddled with shame and fear.
South Korea is training thousands of people, including children, as “dementia supporters,” to recognize symptoms and care for patients. The 11- to 13-year-olds, for instance, were in the government’s “Aging-Friendly Comprehensive Experience Hall” outside Seoul. Besides the aging simulation exercise, they viewed a PowerPoint presentation defining dementia and were trained, in the hall’s Dementia Experience Center, to perform hand massage in nursing homes.