Virtual reality bringing hope to dementia patients

September 11, 2016

Aged care facilities have embraced the technology of the future, and residents suffering dementia could soon be given a virtual tour through their pasts with the aim of memory recovery.

Australian-designed virtual reality unit Solis-VR is already being trialled in more than 50 aged care homes, and while the images aren’t yet customised, the scenes residents are experiencing – sitting on beaches, traveling to polar ice caps and through scenic wilderness – have produced positive emotions, calming effects and a general improved quality of life for patients.

The clinical benefits have yet to be established, but the makers of the technology are encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive response they’ve received, and say it’s just the beginning for virtual reality therapy for dementia sufferers.

The next step is a fully customised experience, by placing a person back into the house they grew up in, or placing them inside other childhood or lifetime memories.

“One of the things we realised with my father was that it was all about loss, the loss of his home, the loss of his car, the loss of activity, and the loss of interactivity with other people,” BuildVR, the maker of Solis-VR, co-founder Sally Darling said.

“So when I had the opportunity to get involved in VR and see what that could do for elderly people that were in care, I really wanted to contribute something that would make a difference to people’s lives. “

While memory-recovery potential is the end-goal, the other positive effects of the trials has so far been indisputable.

“We’ve seen residents really joyful, engaged in activity that you maybe wouldn’t expect an older person to enjoy.  We’ve seen people responding to travels overseas, to ice caps, to the beaches, and they’re really able to share it with their families and the staff,” Bridget Howes, STARLIFE dementia specialist at BlueCross The Boulevard said.

“I can’t imagine so much scenery in such a space,” one resident said.

Experts can’t help but see the technology’s potential.

“Positive engagement that stimulates the brain can’t be bad,” Alzheimer’s Australia Victoria acting CEO Leanne Wenig told News Corp.

“Anything that we can do to help people with dementia engage in a more meaningful life we should support.”

Six months ago, Opal Aged Care began trialling virtual reality in its homes, and likened the treatment, and its benefits, to music therapy.

“In a similar way, we can visually engage people in things that mean something to them in a way that improves cognition,” Managing director Gary Barnier told News Corp.

“We now just want to make sure we take it to a place where residents who will get a clinical benefit out of it have the opportunity.

“[Dementia sufferers] can express quite a lot of frustration because they have unmet needs they struggle to communicate, and we are finding that through… this technology their frustration and behaviour are reducing,” he said.

The technology was putting residents at ease, he said, and giving them “a level of stimulation that they can appreciate.”

For BuildVR co-founder Marc Pascal, the potential to bring happiness to the lives of residents was a motivating factor in developing the technology.

“What we noticed over time was that some of the nicest [aged care] facilities were very comfortable, everything was about comfort, but there wasn’t enough fun, there wasn’t enough joy,” he said.

“And that’s where we saw an opportunity to bring that fun, and bring that joy, to those that have limited mobility, some that can’t leave the residence or even leave their room.”



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