Seniors with dementia pose unique challenges to caregivers. Not only do they have physical needs to be met, which increases with time--some seniors may start only requiring help remembering medications, for example, but may end up needing help getting dressed, staying in a safe space, and preparing food. But they have emotional needs that are difficult to meet. Especially because of the kinds of cognitive decline typical in dementia, such as memory loss or confusion, seniors with dementia often need extra emotional and mental support. They can forget where they are, dates and times, who their loved ones are, and even where a loved one is or has gone. Supporting seniors with dementia emotionally may have been made easier, however, with virtual reality technology emerging from Australia.

Why Virtual Reality?

The brain that is experiencing dementia is, essentially, decaying prematurely. The best way to stop this decay, given that no cure exists for dementia, is to stimulate the brain. Using virtual reality headsets, a senior with dementia can be taken through beautiful landscapes, traveling across the world and engaging in exciting activities. Because it is controlled and safe, seniors with dementia can navigate far-away worlds and get sensory stimulation, which can stave off boredom, depression and anxiety. Given that seniors with dementia are at high risk for wandering and being harmed, they are often confined to their homes for safety reasons. This means they get less stimulation and excitement, and forced to look at their home all day and seeing the same things. By exploring the world virtually, they can get the stimulation they need without any of the dangers.

In addition to helping keep the brain healthy, dementia patients also have emotional health needs that may be difficult to meet, given cognitive decline. It is hard to perform typical emotional therapy, for example, for the depression or anxiety that can come from a brain that is ill. Since memories and communication can be hard to access for seniors with dementia, and since leaving the home can be dangerous, given the risk of wandering and confusion for seniors, it is important to provide ways for them to experience happiness and rid themselves of boredom. Using virtual reality, dementia patients can explore their world and cross things off of their bucket list. Exploring Mayan ruins or flying over New York City at night can be done with a virtual reality headset while sitting comfortably at home with no danger of wandering or injury. This is especially important for seniors with mobility challenges, since this type of "travel" and activity is emotionally stimulating but safe to try.

The Importance of Follow-Up

One of the keys to success of the Australian program are their follow-up questions and discussions. Seniors did not just explore the world virtually; caregivers allowed them to explore it for five or so minutes and then took them out of the virtual reality environment and asked questions. This is not an interrogation, but starting a conversation. Seniors using this device had their sensory receptors stimulated and then had to recall details to a caregiver and articulate their emotions. This stimulates social and communication areas of their brains, further protecting and supporting brain health. It also means that caregivers were able to find what virtual reality settings made them happy or excited, which is useful for reminiscence therapy or for distractions if they become upset.

Keeping Your Loved One Healthy and Happy

If your loved one has dementia, explore options for virtual reality games or environments, which have recently entered American markets. Typically, these require a lot of money or equipment and are currently more focused on video games than on exploring landscapes. To stimulate the same areas of the brain, try some of these tips.

  • Go for daily walks or field trips. Whenever possible, take your loved one out of their home and explore somewhere new. Neighborhood parks, museums, art exhibits, or concerts are often excellent ways to stimulate the brain with new information while keeping them safe, so long as you can prevent wandering. Plan ahead and make sure you can get a quick, safe exit if they become emotional, overstimulated, or confused.
  • Continually chat with them about their past. Reminiscing is one way to casually activate the brain's memory areas. Focus especially on happy memories, like holidays with loved ones or vacations on the beach as a child.
  • Use items or aids to activate happy memories. Find music or television shows from their childhood and listen or watch them together, asking them what they remember or when they attended a live concert. Using this memory exercise and tying it to happy emotions is a good way to distract them from an emotional situation, too.

If you believe your loved one may be experiencing dementia or cognitive decline, call their doctor right away. Whenever possible, regardless of their diagnosis, reminiscing with seniors is a great way to protect their brains from general decline. Consider using these tips as a way to enhance your relationship and their emotional health.

Sources:

Bowling, Mark. Dementia Patients Are Travelling the Globe with Virtual Reality Goggles. The Catholic Leader, October 7, 2016. Available at http://catholicleader.com.au/slideshow/dementia-patients-are-travelling-the-globe-with-virtual-reality-goggles. Retrieved November 26, 2016.

Chadwick, Jonathan. How virtual reality is transforming dementia care in Australia. TechRepublic, October 30, 2016. Available at http://www.techrepublic.com/article/how-virtual-reality-is-transforming-dementia-care-in-australia/. Retrieved November 26, 2016.

Tsukayama, Hayley. This physician is using virtual reality to treat patients with dementia. The Washington Post, November 17, 2016. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2016/11/17/this-physician-is-using-virtual-reality-to-treat-patients-with-dementia/. Retrieved November 26, 2016.

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