AAIC 2018: Virtual reality provides first-hand dementia experience for young people

Written by Olivia Stevenson, Future Science Group

Researchers have demonstrated the benefits of using virtual reality (VR) technology to allow young people to view a simulation of life with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), providing an insight into the lives of those with the condition and aiding the training of students volunteering with the elderly.
AD is becoming increasingly prevalent in older people. To ensure the highest quality care, it is important for volunteers and staff working at day centers or long-term care facilities to fully understand the impact that the disease can have. Improving this understanding, and providing the highest-quality training, could help to improve the quality of life of individuals with the disease.

In this study, carried out as part of the Bringing Art to Life program, VR simulation was used to enhance the training of 20 high school students who were learning how to interact with older patients with dementia before starting their voluntary work.

The students were shown two modules utilizing the VR technology that had been developed by Carrie Shaw of Embodied Labs (LA, USA). The Alfred module, a live-action film demonstrating the life of Alfred, a 74-year-old African–American man with mild cognitive impairment, macular degeneration and hearing loss; and the Beatriz module, which includes 5-minute stories of middle-aged Beatriz at different stages throughout her AD progression.

These videos allowed the students to experience a digital simulation of what it’s like to undertake ordinary activities when living with dementia.

Students whose volunteer training included the VR technology exhibited a greater understanding and empathy for adults with dementia, as well as a stronger interest in working with aging adults.

“What we’re hearing from the students is that experiencing the virtual reality training before they volunteer improves their empathy and increases enthusiasm for working with the seniors – two documented outcomes of our program,” said Daniel Potts, founder of the Bringing Art to Life program. “It also may decrease the stigma and their negative attitudes about older people.”

Further research into the benefits of using VR technology in this way is already being planned. Rush University Medical Center (IL, USA) will carry out a study involving 60 students and research assistants in September 2018.

If they observe more promising results, researchers anticipate that VR simulation could be used more widely to help volunteers and staff to provide the highest quality care for dementia patients.

“Every patient is a person and has a story. We want to help explain the science of what’s happening in the brain with the story of the person who has the dementia that will allow caregivers to be better providers and communicators,” concluded Shaw.

Sources: Shaw C et al. Enhancing dementia care and building empathy through the integration of virtual reality technology and art therapy. Presented at: Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, Chicago, IL, USA, 22–26 July 2018; www.alz.org/aaic/releases_2018/AAIC18-Mon-virtual-reality.asp

You might also like: