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Virtual reality may help in understanding patients with AD, dementia

Audrey Abella
10 Aug 2018

Incorporating virtual reality (VR) modules into the ‘Bringing Art to Life’ (BATL) service learning programme provided participants with a greater understanding of people with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other dementias (PWDs), according to a presentation at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC 2018).

BATL is currently being used in two US cities – Chicago, Illinois and Tuscaloosa, Alabama – and allows high school and college students to engage with residents of assisted living and adult day care facilities and take part in simulation exercises. [AAIC 2018, abstract P2-520]

The most recent VR modules involve the live-action experiences of Alfred, a 74-year-old man with mild cognitive impairment, age-related macular degeneration, and high-frequency hearing loss, and Beatriz, a middle-aged woman going through the stages of AD.

The stories transport participants into a digital sphere that immerses them into the struggles of performing daily activities – but with dementia-related confusion and agitation.

After the VR experience, participants reported a stronger interest in healthcare careers and in working with the elderly, said the creator of BATL, Dr Daniel Potts from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, US. “It may also decrease the stigma and their negative attitude about older people.”

Moreover, the first-hand experience and simulation allowed students to effectively work and communicate with PWDs and foster a greater sense of empathy towards elderly individuals with cognitive impairments, noted Carrie Shaw of Embodied Labs, Los Angeles, California, US, creator of the VR modules.

Shaw created the modules based on her caregiver experience when her mother was diagnosed with AD to have a better grasp of her mother’s predicament. “[VR] allows us to recreate some of the perspective of someone living with [AD, which] will allow caregivers to be better providers and communicators,” she said.

Together with Dr Neelum Aggarwal of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, US, Shaw developed the Beatriz module to enable the visualization of the brain of an individual with AD. “[This may evaluate whether] they have empathy for patients and are aware of any biases they may have towards people with dementia,” said Aggarwal.

Rush University Medical Center will be recruiting medical and pharmacy students and research assistants to participate in VR training and the BATL programme in Chicago in September 2018.

“[These modules] may be useful in expanding awareness about … AD,” said Beth Kallmyer, Vice President of Care and Support for the Alzheimer's Association. “It’s interesting that the creators of the modules also highlighted other issues that some people experience as they age, including communicating inappropriately with others because they may not be able to see or hear well, in addition to the memory problems that are common for persons with [AD].”

A more in-depth exploration is planned to further evaluate the impact of VR in PWD management, noted Shaw. “[Further studies] may allow the extrapolation of positive results to broaden the use of VR simulation [and] for staff training in both acute and long-term care facilities.”

 

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