Today, dementia is the second most feared disease after cancer. This is probably because the condition is incurable and is expected to affect a significant part of our society. By 2030, the number of people living with dementia worldwide is expected to increase to 78 million.
Besides complicating and reducing quality of life for those affected, the disease also has severe financial consequences. It’s projected that by 2050, the cost of dementia will reach nearly $1 trillion.
So, everything we can do to prevent and slow down the disease can have a big impact not only on people’s well-being but also on associated costs. This is where Virtual Reality can become a helpful tool.
We conducted research based on open-source data and our experience creating VR solutions for dementia to outline how Virtual Reality can be used to address current dementia challenges. The most useful findings are summed up in this article.
Dementia Current Overview
As a collective term, dementia refers to about 200 disorders affecting the brain. These include Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for about 70% of all dementia cases, vascular dementia, Lewy-body dementia, and more.
In recent years, this issue has garnered increasing coverage, mostly because of the rising average life expectancy.
Thirty years ago, the average life span was 60 years. Now, it’s about 73 years. The typical age of a dementia sufferer is 65+. So dementia isn’t particularly new; we just see more cases now.
Here is one more thing. The older we get, the higher the chance of having dementia. In fact, it doubles every five years. So, while only 2 out of 100 people suffer from dementia at the age of 65-70 years, by the age of 90 years this number increases to 33 out of 100.
However, dementia doesn’t only affect older people. Early-onset forms of the disease can appear at 30-50 years or even at birth. It’s estimated that one out of 2,800 newborns are born with a genetic condition that causes dementia.
As they grow older, children with these conditions experience memory loss and emotional and behavioral difficulties. As the disease progresses, they may lose the ability to read, talk, and otherwise function. While dementia can advance over decades, half of the children with dementia die by the age of 10.
Unfortunately, dementia is not currently curable. So, our focus is on improving the quality of life for people with dementia by slowing its progress, relieving symptoms, and providing appropriate care.
And here we face several challenges.
Challenges of Supporting People with Dementia
When dementia is identified early, there is more chance of slowing down its progression. That’s why early diagnosis is crucial to optimize timely care, select medications, and delay negative impacts.
However, only 4 in 10 Americans report their first symptoms of dementia, such as memory loss, to their doctors. Meanwhile, 7 in 10 people diagnosed with dementia say they wish they had known it earlier to start treatment promptly.
The other downside is that non-specialists, such as primary care physicians (PCPs), may lack awareness of more subtle signals of dementia, delaying its timely identification.
But even when a diagnosis is made, we face another challenge — a shortage of professional caregivers. The average staff turnover rate in nursing homes is above 50%. Dementia care nurses, in particular, face increased workload, limited support, and emotional burnout, contributing significantly to the high turnover rate.
As a result, it’s common that older people with dementia are cared for by their relatives. There are 16 million unpaid caregivers in the US, most of whom are family members. They often don’t understand how best to provide care and struggle to find help and support. Therefore, 40% of family caregivers experience some form of depression.
We can partially address these challenges through special education training, and this is where Virtual Reality comes in.
How VR Can Enrich Dementia Care
Despite doubts about whether VR is suitable for elderly users, the technology is being actively adopted among them. Additionally, VR in dementia is more targeted at medical professionals and family members, providing them with training.
Although dementia is generally the domain of geriatricians and neurologists, primary care physicians and recent medical graduates often find themselves on the front line of diagnosing dementia, but lacking sufficient skills. About 22% of such specialists in the US, for example, haven’t completed residency training in dementia care and diagnosing.
In this case, there are two ways to acquire valuable knowledge: reading theory on identifying dementia symptoms or using Virtual Reality to try the theory in practice.
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VR can immerse trainees in various scenarios where they need to interact with patients to identify potential dementia symptoms. Trainees can also practice conducting cognitive assessment tests, interpreting results correctly, and providing advice for future care.
This approach helps healthcare professionals become more educated and feel less stressed when interacting with people with dementia, increasing the likelihood of early identification.
At HQSoftware, we’re now developing a dementia VR training program with one module dedicated to early dementia diagnosing.
Within the training, learners first receive theoretical information, including educational videos and pictures. They then observe how a doctor communicates with patients to identify any dementia symptoms and assess mild cognitive impairment or steady disease progression. Then, learners can conduct assessment tests on their own.
Educational Design Lead
By taking information in an unusual form and applying it in virtual simulations, learners are more likely to use these skills in real-life practice compared to simply reading information on paper with low knowledge retention.
After an initial diagnosis or suspicion of dementia, patients can undergo additional testing. This often includes biochemical blood tests and MRI scans of the brain. Here, medical professionals can also leverage Virtual Reality.
With tools similar to Bodyscope, designed and developed by the HQSoftware team, medical specialists can visualize MRI/CT images in volume to explore a patient’s condition in detail. Bodyscope, for example, provides special features such as tissue density visualization or the ability to slice the model at any angle.
It’s important to note that Bodyscope is only a training tool aimed at enhancing the perception of MRI/CT scans for medical students, interns, or non-radiologist medical specialists. Nevertheless, the same idea could be used to develop a comprehensive diagnostic solution.
Dementia care specialist training
Inadequate or insufficient care not only fails to help people with dementia but can harm them by negatively affecting their emotional well-being. This is often caused by a shortage of professional caregivers and a lack of relevant knowledge among both nurses and family members.
Virtual Reality training in this case can demonstrate how to care for people with dementia in terms of dressing, toileting, feeding, and communicating. Learners can first explore the theory and then practice skills in immersive scenarios involving typical daily tasks.
The ability of VR to boost knowledge retention is especially valuable here. Typically, elderly people with dementia are cared for by their spouses or children, who may be in their senior years as well. These caregivers may find it more difficult to absorb new information than younger people. The immersive, hands-on experience in VR helps family members understand and remember information more easily, leading to better care.
Immersive dementia care training can also highlight typical mistakes that caregivers may make and explain, in a natural and effective way, how it affects patients.
For example, the HQSoftware team built a VR solution that, in addition to providing learning modules, allows trainees to step into the shoes of people with dementia. So, learners better understand the physical and emotional experience of the patient when the caregiver makes a typical mistake.
Educational Design Lead
After experiencing difficult emotions in a dementia simulator, such as fear and anxiety, the caregiver will do their best to avoid common mistakes, not to trigger these emotions in patients. This approach increases empathy and allows for developing optimal communication strategies comfortable for both a caregiver and a patient.
VR for patient stress relief
Besides creating functional limitations, dementia also negatively affects emotional well-being. People with dementia can experience some form of depression, anxiety, irritability, aggression, and more.
These emotional changes are beyond their control and can impair quality of life even more than the cognitive issues. According to caregivers, this is also the most challenging and stressful aspect of caring for people with dementia.
Medication is not always effective in managing such symptoms and can also have negative side effects. So, trying to find alternative and non-invasive methods to help people with dementia cope with their emotional instability, we can again turn to Virtual Reality.
VR for dementia patients can immerse people in a relaxing environment, such as a forest or countryside, to reduce stress and calm them. The same approach is used for chronic pain management with VR. According to a study, participants who tried using VR for relaxation provided positive feedback, with 76% wanting to try such an experience again.
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Such VR scenarios can even help people recall old memories. Seeing the same landscape several times, users may find associations with their past, recalling some event. A small study involving eight participants with different forms of dementia explored this concept in 2019.
As part of the study, participants had 16 VR sessions, each time choosing one of five landscapes to visit. Some people visited the same simulation over and over again, eventually recalling some old memories. Their caregivers mentioned that the test patients were less aggressive and it was easier to communicate with them. Despite the small size of the study, we can see the potential of Virtual Reality for dementia patients in this area, requiring more research on its effectiveness.
Future of VR for Dementia
At the moment, there is no evidence that Virtual Reality has a positive impact on slowing the progress of dementia. However, such studies are gradually being conducted, so in the future, we can expect VR solutions aimed at managing the disease.
There are also many other aspects of using Virtual Reality for dementia that need to be researched. For example, how to manage Virtual Reality for seniors with dementia so as not to harm them, how to assess the impact of VR on patients’ well-being, which type of content is better for perception, and more.
The capabilities of Artificial Intelligence won’t be overlooked and will significantly improve VR solutions.
Head of Production
In terms of VR dementia training, we can incorporate natural language processing to build dynamic diagnosing modules, so learners can explore as many potential scenarios as possible. And we see even more opportunities for the alliance of AI and VR for dementia patients, such as personalized care plans, cognitive enhancement programs, and more.
According to Alzheimer’s Disease International CEO Paola Barbarino, 62% of healthcare professionals incorrectly believe that dementia is part of aging, which contributes to the lack of support offered to dementia patients.
With VR, we can increase awareness of this issue and create strategies for how to improve people’s lives and provide emotional and physical support.
We at HQSoftware are proud to be a part of such socially important projects. Here we combine our strong expertise in VR development and designing educational scenarios with our drive to make people’s lives better with modern technologies.
Feel free to contact us to explore how to create dementia simulation training with HQSoftware to boost dementia care.
A developer with extensive expertise in AR/VR, very ingrained into the topic of Mixed Reality development. Shares his knowledge and the results of many years of work.
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