Virtual Reality: The Next Frontier for Dementia Care?

| Dementia

Grand-mère portant des lunettes VR

Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-generated, three-dimensional environment that users can experience with special equipment. Put on a high-tech headset and you’re instantly immersed in a different world, one that you can explore and interact with. The setting can be literally anywhere, limited only by a VR developer’s imagination.

You may have heard of virtual reality in the context of video gaming. Not only has the technology shaken up that industry, but it’s making in-roads in other sectors, from health care to automotive, military, manufacturing, architecture, sports, entertainment and retail. As VR equipment becomes more affordable over time, we can expect to see even greater adoption of this powerful and exciting technology.

Virtual reality in health care

We’re just starting to discover VR’s health care possibilities. It’s already being used to educate medical students, who are watching operations filmed with a VR camera, and experiencing simulations of what it’s like to be elderly (an initiative meant to foster empathy).

Researchers and companies are studying how VR can help hospital patients relax or prepare for surgery, and how the technology might improve treatment for people with autism, chronic pain, traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and low vision. Researchers are also exploring VR’s potential role in cancer care, mental health, addictions, nursing training, staff burnout and dementia care.

VR for people with dementia

How can virtual reality benefit people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, which affect nearly 50 million people worldwide, including more than 400,000 Canadians? Here are some of the applications already under way:

  • Sea Hero Quest: This free video game, available in mobile and VR versions, is both fun and ground-breaking: it collects data on the spatial navigation skills of different demographic groups. Losing navigation skills is one of the first signs of dementia, and the game is helping scientists understand how to diagnose the disease earlier.
  • LookBack: This app, available on Google Play, provides reminiscent experiences, letting users “travel” the world, relive historical events or try new experiences (such as riding a steam engine). “Designed for the elderly, especially people with dementia, the app can be used to revisit old memories and create new ones,” says its creator, Virtue Tech. Users can explore LookBack on a mobile device and add a VR headset for a more immersive experience. There’s a companion app for caregivers, family and friends.
  • Rendever: Created for senior-living facilities, this VR system takes residents on journeys to places they can’t physically visit, such as Paris or Machu Picchu. It’s also a social experience, since participants can “travel” together. According to the company, Rendever has shown a 40% boost in resident happiness.
  • ImmersiCare: Designed to improve well-being and reduce stress, this VR system from the U.K. uses 3-D desktop software and an Oculus Rift VR headset to create immersive, calming environments, such as a beach or forest. While ImmersiCare may be too expensive for home use (about $7,400 in Canadian dollars), it’s ideal for seniors’ care facilities.
  • BikeAround: This VR-inspired experience combines a computer, a screen and Google Street View with an exercise bike. As users pedal, they tour through different locations – including places from their past, such as their childhood neighbourhood. BikeAround’s makers say it’s suitable for people with memory problems, cognitive disabilities and physical disabilities.

Safety first

Research into VR’s health care applications is still ongoing – it’s much too soon, for example, to prescribe VR as a form of therapy for Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.

If you have virtual reality equipment, exercise caution when introducing it to your senior loved one. While many VR environments can be soothing or stimulating in a positive way, it’s also possible that people can become upset or overwhelmed by the technology, including the tight-fitting headset. Seniors who already suffer from disorientation or confusion may not understand what’s happening.

Always pay attention to the safety warnings provided by VR manufacturers. Some VR users (of any age) experience negative effects such as eye strain, nausea, motion sickness or headaches. People with health conditions such as heart problems, psychiatric disorders and vision abnormalities should see a doctor before trying VR. Users can also have physical accidents, such as losing their balance and falling, while using VR – always think safety first!

If you’re concerned about your senior loved one’s quality of life, consider home care services. Bayshore Home Health offers companionship, housekeeping, transportation, personal care and other services to help seniors live independently for as long as possible. Call 1-877-289-3997 for more information.

Additional resources

Alzheimer Society of Canada