How VR can be used to help those with dementia (Brain Awareness Week, 14-20 March)

Olivia Miller
Picture by Unsplash

On Brain Awareness Week (14-20 March), Dr Jim Ang, an expert in digital health at the University’s School of Computing, explains how Virtual Reality (VR) can play a role in dementia care. He said:

‘Since dementia remains incurable and progressive resulting in loss of functional independence, institutional care is essential for some. However, many people with dementia living in long-term care have poor quality of life and can progressively lose their sense of autonomy, including engagement in activities of daily living. Daily activities are often restricted due to factors such as moving away from previously established networks and communities, reduced mobility, or inability to find their own way. As a result, many people with dementia face barriers in accessing experiences beyond their physical premises. This has been exacerbated and brought into focus by the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, almost all people with dementia in care homes experience a neuropsychiatric symptom such as depression or agitation which can contribute to cognitive decline, social withdrawal, and lack of motivation.

‘There are no consistently effective drug treatments for these distressing symptoms, but studies suggest non-pharmacological interventions can be effective including caregivers re-directing people with dementia to low-stimulus environments and acting in changing antecedent condition that might have elicited the behaviour. Emerging research has begun to examine various uses of digital technology to aid and assist people with dementia. Specifically, newer technologies such as VR has been examined in dementia care. For instance, research has explored the use of VR as a tool for training and rehabilitation for individuals with early or mild dementia.

‘Recent pilot research by my research team at the University of Kent has shown that the use of immersive technology such as VR can improve quality of life in dementia care with short VR sessions (15 minutes). In the study, it was found that people with dementia experienced more pleasure during and after VR compared to before exposure, as well as increased alertness after. The study also highlighted that people with dementia gained a sense of autonomy that may not be available in real life circumstances, e.g. to freely explore a virtual beach and the opportunity to relive memories, engaging in a form of reminiscence therapy. The research team at Kent is now working with care homes and hospitals to investigate the longer-term impact of the use of VR in dementia care, and how VR can be delivered remotely to allow family members to participate in the experience.’