Virtual reality technology gives high school students greater insight into what it’s like to be Alfred — a 74-year-old African American man with suspected mild cognitive impairment (MCI), plus age-related vision and hearing loss, or Beatriz, a middle-aged Latina, as she progresses through the continuum of Alzheimer’s disease.
By experiencing aspects of someone else’s journey, the students may gain a better understanding of, and empathy for, older adults and their struggles with dementia. Details of the virtual reality learning program were reported today at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) 2018 in Chicago.
The virtual reality (VR) simulation was incorporated into a training program for about 20 high school students at Northside College Preparatory School in Chicago. Used as part of the Bringing Art to Life program, the goal of the VR training was to better prepare the young people to interact with older adults with Alzheimer’s and other dementias at long-term care facilities and adult day care centers. The Alfred and Beatriz modules will next be used with undergraduate students volunteering in the Bringing Art to Life program at the University of Alabama next spring.
“What we’re hearing from the students is that experiencing the virtual reality training before they volunteer improves their empathy and increases enthusiasm for working with the seniors — two documented outcomes of our program,” said Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN, of the University of Alabama and neurologist who created the Bringing Art to Life Program. “It also may decrease the stigma and their negative attitudes about older people.” It has also increased interest in health care careers among the students.
The Alfred module is a live-action film, depicting the world as experienced by a 74-year-old with MCI, macular degeneration and high frequency hearing loss. The Beatriz module includes five-minute stories of a middle-aged Latina as she experiences the early, middle and later aspects of Alzheimer’s disease dementia. The stories take the participant through a digital version of what it’s like to be at the grocery store, struggling with other activities of daily living and sundowning — when dementia-related confusion and agitation get worse later in the day.
“Technology like this may be useful in expanding awareness about what it is like to have Alzheimer’s disease dementia,” said Beth Kallmyer, MSW, Vice President of Care and Support for the Alzheimer’s Association. “It’s interesting that the creators of the modules also highlight other issues that some people experience as they age, including communicating inappropriately with others because they may not be able to see or hear well, in addition to the memory problems that are common for persons with Alzheimer’s.”