TRIALS of 3D virtual reality goggles in Australian Catholic aged-care facilities are proving a big hit with dementia patients, stimulating their minds with globe-trotting adventures.
Care consultants have hailed the benefits of VR technology to improve the quality of life of dementia sufferers, even offering an alternative to medication.
“We’ve found that it’s triggered their ability to reminisce, to communicate to try the different experiences they’ve always wanted to do and fulfil their bucket list,” Karren Gooding, Mercy Health and Aged Care lifestyle manager, which first trialled the new technology with aged residents at its Parkville facility in Melbourne, said.
The trial was designed to trigger memories emotions and importantly, happiness.
Residents enjoyed the virtual experience of African safaris, gondola rides in Venice and helicopter rides over New York, all from the comfort of an armchair.
“It enables them in a very safe easy environment to just wear this very comfortable headset and feel like they are in this tranquil, beautiful place,” Daniel Gray from Virtual Reality Aged Care, the business behind the trial, said.
“We can sit with a person, find out what their interests are or maybe their background, or maybe someone wants to try hang gliding… suddenly they are across the Hawaiian mountains.”
Mr Gray is a diversional therapist with 15 years experience in aged care and is now marketing the 3D headsets linked to a smartphone.
VR technology is improving rapidly and is now more affordable, lightweight and portable.
The results of Mercy Health’s trial in Victoria were so encouraging that the Catholic organisation rolled out VR goggles to each of its 22 facilities across Australia. It has two facilities in Cairns.
More than 200 Mercy Health residents have now trialled the virtual reality glasses.
“All participating residents are living with dementia; some receive it four days a week, some twice a week and others once a week, so it can be determined whether more frequent use is associated with greater benefits,” Ms Gooding said.
A typical session involves five to six minutes of experiencing the virtual reality program, which is used by staff as a prompt for a follow-up conversation.
“Staff engage with the resident after watching the program, to tap into their long-term memory and create that reminiscence and conversation,” she said.
Endorsement for the use of VR goggles has come from dementia care consultant Ben Gatehouse, who told a dementia conference in Sydney in June that the technology could be a game-changer.
Mr Gatehouse has first-hand experience of trials of VR goggles at Southern Cross Care, Victoria.
“In addition to 20 per cent of residents reporting a pleasurable experience as a result of the 3D immersive experience, behavioural outcomes witnessed included a reduction in vocalisations, wandering and anxiety among residents coupled with a staff preference for VR before pharmacological interventions, he said.
“It is terrific if our staff can have a very broad-based approach to managing complex behaviour before going to the use of medications,”
Ben Sheehan, managing director of Altish, a Brisbane-based VR developer, said consumer-ready virtual reality hardware would soon be available.
“This hardware will range from US$100 for a portable device, powered by a smartphone for a seated experience, right through to room-scale devices that allow the user to move around in virtual reality and receive physical feedback from the environment via haptic feedback suits and gloves,” Mr Sheehan said.
Mr Sheehan is developing a suite of virtual reality simulations for the aged care sector, specifically in key areas of dementia, palliative care and training scenarios for providers.
But he said residents might also benefit from other simulations that were designed to assist users with depression, anxiety or just relaxation.
“While virtual reality will be commercially driven by the entertainment industry in 2016, we are committed to delivering accessible and immersive experiences in the aged care space,” he said.
“We have seen virtual reality used for powerful healing experiences firsthand and research is proving its efficacy.”
Mr Sheehan started experimenting with VR as therapeutic experience for his bed-ridden father who was suffering from mesothelioma.
By Mark Bowling