Subscribe to eTOC

Virtual Reality Program Boosts Understanding of Dementia and Aging

CHICAGO—A virtual reality program, which simulates the experience of living with dementia, builds empathy and insight into caregiving among teens, according to findings presented here at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference.

The tool has helped improve an already existing art therapy program, called Bringing Art to Life, for people with dementia, said Daniel Potts, MD, who started the program after his father became a skilled and avid painter after becoming non-verbal due to dementia.

"The virtual reality addition seemed to take it up a notch," he said. "Respondents all said that it was very engaging and helped them to interact better with people with dementia" with whom they were paired in the art therapy program.

Users of the virtual reality program wear a headset and are placed into a world — in the form of five-minute "journeys" — in which they use their own hands projected as the person whose experience they are sharing.

One simulation involves Alfred, a 74-year-old African-American man with suspected mild cognitive impairment, age-related macular degeneration, and high frequency hearing loss. The aim is to experience how his condition affects his relationships with his family and doctor, and to try to navigate the health care system with these impairments. Another simulation features Beatriz, a middle-aged Latina woman with Alzheimer's disease.

"It delivers a really complex but powerful, high-impact teaching moment," said Carrie Shaw, MS, who developed the virtual reality program at her Los Angeles-based Embodied Labs.

Debriefings of high-school students who've used the program as part of their involvement in Bringing Art to Life have found that they come away with a deeper understanding of how the brain works and what Alzheimer's disease is. They also have developed ideas for better care practices, such as talking more slowly or providing better lighting in rooms where people with dementia spend their time.

Researchers have also found an increased interest in pursuing a career in health care and decreased use of words associated with stereotyping when talking about aging, Shaw said.

Dr. Potts said he's hoping the virtual reality tool, together with the Bringing Art to Life, catches on clinically.

"We'd love for that to be the case," Dr. Potts said. "Neurologists need to be advocating more for expressive arts as a means of living well. We need to be helping not just diagnose people and putting them on meds, but helping them to live well."

Darby Morhardt, PhD, a clinical social worker and research associate professor at the Northwestern Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center, who is not involved with the program, said the virtual reality's allure to high school students and medical students makes it especially valuable.

"If we want to really want to change people's thinking about dementia, we need to get to them early in life," she said. "We certainly need more health care professionals that have a better understanding of this disease and a more compassionate, empathic response."​


AAIC Abstract P2-520: Shaw C, et al. Enhancing dementia care and building empathy through the integration of virtual reality technology and art therapy.