How Virtual Reality Is Helping People With Dementia

Virtual reality has become one of the most exciting areas of potential in the healthcare market. From surgical training to pain management, it is slowly being heralded as a type of panacea for all sorts of complex ailments.

One of those it is being piloted for is the neurodegenerative disease dementia. A disease which accounts for the slow decline of one’s cognitive abilities such as memory and thought over time. It’s an incurable disease which affects mostly the elderly and kills millions globally each year, in fact, it is the world’s fifth biggest killer.

Traditionally reminiscence therapy (RT) has been employed as one vital source of help for dementia sufferers. Usually carried out through recollection and re-experiencing activities, it has had a limited capacity around the area of lifelike simulation and immersion. But now this therapy has been taken one step further thanks to virtual reality.  It’s a new progressive area of dementia research and treatment whereby patients are able to travel in time with the help of 3D glasses to key moments throughout their childhood and adult life and it’s causing quite a stir.

In 2016 Alzheimer’s Research UK launched ‘A Walk Through Dementia’, an interactive educational experience designed to recreate a day in the life of someone living with the disease. The technology enabled you to step into their shoes for activities such as going to the supermarket or walking home. Developed in collaboration with people living with different forms of dementia, this project aims to fight the stigma and generalisations associated with the disease, which gains ten million new cases each year. There are companies in the space like Virtue and even Samsung who are getting in on this new restorative area of treatment.

But this particular area has huge potential for its live simulation qualities, it is precisely this disruption, generated by a flashback to a familiar or comforting period in time, which companies and developers are finding a huge potential for in VR therapy.
The project ‘Wayback’, launched in 2017, allows Alzheimer’s sufferers to be transported to different points in the past through a series of virtual reality films. And all they need for this time-travel is a pair of 3D goggles and an app downloaded on a mobile phone. The first in the series? A trip to the Queen’s coronation on 2nd June 1953, complete with street party and the appropriate number one single playing on the radio.

Similarly, the UK start-up ‘Virtue’ offers a huge range of experiences, including a trip to the train station in the 1950s or a stroll along Brighton beach in the 70s. And the results are remarkable. Through entering into a past reality, this often produces a flood of memories, which not only bring a rare sense of joy and positivity to the sufferer but also allows for shared experiences and conversation with their family members or carer. In one case, after having tried the experience, one woman recalled having been present at the coronation itself, describing it as ‘forever imprinted’ in her memory.

These VR developments could be the way forward in this historically under-funded area of medical research. Perhaps bringing back the past could be the best way to retrieve some long-forgotten joy and lust for life in those suffering from dementia.