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June 13, 2019updated 23 Dec 2019 10:27am

Carers Week 2019: how VR is helping carers empathise with their patients

A rapidly aging global population is leaving health services facing a dementia time bomb. Simulating the effects of the disease in virtual reality may enhance carers understanding of how to look after patients with the devastating condition.

By Chloe Kent

The prevalence of dementia in care homes rose from 56% in 2002 to 70% in 2013 in England and Wales. Globally, the numbers of people living with dementia are expected to increase from a recorded 50 million in 2018 to 152 million in 2050, a 204% increase.

Multiple factors shape the ability of carers to deliver empathetic care to patients with dementia, but even healthcare professionals have been known to demonstrate prejudice and lack of understanding towards patients with the condition. However, virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) experiences are now equipping the next generation of dementia carers with a unique compassion for the behaviours and needs of their patients.

Training2Care’s mobile virtual dementia tour (VDT), which can be incorporated into standard training procedures for prospective and current care staff, aims to simulate the mental and physical challenges faced by people with the condition. Using sensory stimulation devices and instruction, the VDT simulation bombards the senses to deliver an experience which is designed to be as close to really having dementia as possible.

Care staff undergoing the training have their sight, hearing and sense of touch in their hands and feet dulled or removed, before being instructed to complete basic tasks with the limitations in place.

Training2Care managing director Glenn Knight says: “With this bombardment of senses the delegates demonstrate classic dementia behaviours that we would see in the community, care and nursing environments. Families, teachers and care staff constantly comment that after the experience they now understand why the person acts in the way that they do.”

Carers who undergo Training2Care’s VDT programme report feeling anxious, lost and vulnerable.

VR headsets: simulating dementia

Japanese company Silver Wood has created a series of films the viewer experiences via a VR headset, which is intended to give them a better grasp of what it’s like to have dementia.

Silver Wood has been offering its Virtual Reality Dementia Experiences (VRDE) for local governments, education boards and hospitals since 2016. The simulations are 360° video experiences, all based on interviews with dementia patients to reflect their reality as accurately as possible.

Financial Times Tokyo bureau chief Robin Harding, who trialled VRDE in 2018, says: “You’re still basically watching video but it’s amazing how different it is to see through the patient’s eyes. The VR made me realise there are different kinds of dementia and the patients are experiencing different things.”

VRDE includes simulations of dementia variations such as Alzheimer’s disease, visuospatial dysgnosia, which involves a loss of spatial awareness, and Lewy bodies dementia, where protein develops inside the brain’s nerve cells and can cause distressing visual hallucinations.

Dementia care training can be lacking

It’s important that care staff have a robust grasp of the physical mechanisms of dementia, and the symptoms they can trigger. However, understanding the disease on a purely neurological level rather than a practical level can make it difficult for carers to fully empathise with their patients when they have no personal experience of having a neurodegenerative disease.

“Unless we can understand what a person is experiencing we cannot make simple changes to improve their lives,” Knight says. “Dementia training mainly focuses on what is happening to the brain, so courses do not improve practice because we are not treating the disease.”

Simulated worlds like those offered by Training2Care and Silver Wood can thus empower care staff to have a greater appreciation of the daily lives of the patients in their care who live with dementia. As rates of the disease in the general population rise, and alongside it the workload faced by carers, VR seems like a logical addition to the training regimes of professional care staff.

“By understanding [the lived experience of a dementia patient],” Knight says, “we can ensure that we can improve practice, environments and attitudes to really make a difference.”

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