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Back to the future


When it comes to economic entertainment, being invited to explore the world from the confines of your couch is about as economical as it gets.

Likewise, having your driving skills tested without being required to find your keys, put on footwear or even run a comb through your hair is equally appealing.

But of late it’s not just a quick trip to visit the gondolas of Venice or a renewed licence on offer, with interactive virtual reality devices offering Australia’s active seniors a journey that will not only help tick off bucket list items and chores, but has also been proven to reduce isolation, support social integration and in some cases even assist with pain management.

Originally developed by the video gaming industry, virtual reality intervention is now being investigated by clinical health professionals as an effective intervention and training method.

Adelle King, a senior advisor at RMIT’s Centre for Digital Excellence, says a growing body of research is showing how VR can be used to enhance the wellbeing, mood and engagement of patients in aged care facilities, particularly those living with dementia.

King says VR technology enables dementia patients to enjoy experiences that they would otherwise miss out on, such as concerts, theatre and travel.

“These experiences can help reduce mood swings, agitation and stress,” King says.

Victorian Daniel Gray has a background in therapeutic recreation and has worked in the aged care space for the past 18 years.

An executive board member of Diversional and Recreation Therapy Australia, Gray says that VR provides a large demographic with the resources to partake in recreational therapy without needing the physical ability usually required to participate in hands-on activities. As such, he claims it removes the barriers preventing many elderly people from participating in therapeutic recreational activities.

“Not only does VR allow for the user to experience things they’ve never seen before, but also can be used to improve cognitive function and problem-solving skills. This is achieved through the variety of applications that can be used with VR devices.

“Furthermore, maintaining and further developing these skills can aid in the prevention or delay of things such as dementia through the long-term potentiation (LTP) that takes place during learning.”

Gray says the combination of game-like exercises and cognitive challenges are not only enjoyable but recent studies have shown they also have a place in increasing physical activity levels in the elderly population as well as improving cognitive function and motor skills.

King says while VR technology used to be extremely expensive, monthly rental packages from companies [that] include headsets with pre-loaded content and smart phones, have made it increasingly accessible and affordable for providers.

But King says It’s not just residents who can benefit from VR. The technology is also being used to assist in aged care training to enable staff to better understand the needs of people living with dementia.


Making environments more supportive

The best example of this is a training workshop for staff in Victoria that features Educational Dementia Immersive Experience (EDIE) VR technology developed by Alzheimer’s Australia.

Introduced in workshop form, it enables participants to understand the environmental elements that are friendly or hostile, by allowing them to experience a home environment in the same way a person with dementia would.

Participants are encouraged to reflect on their own approach to dementia support and to think about ways in which they can make their own environments more supportive.

Having held an interest in VR for several years but wanting to wait until the technology became more stable and quality improved, four years ago Gray decided to take the bull by the horns by launching his own VR software business, specifically targeted at those aged 65-plus.

Appropriately called Aged Care Virtual Reality, Gray’s system offers advice on everything related to VR ranging from a free guide on how users can implement the technology to updates on equipment available to enhance viewing. In addition, the site also offers access to a curated number of VR applications via an online library specifically targeted at the aged care sector, the likes of which include multiple safari tours and action/adventure tours as well as a couple of digital underwater experiences.

Gray says portable VR devices cost around $600-$800 and are as simple to use as a smart phone.

“If you can set up and use a smart phone you can use one of these. For non-portables it does take a little more technical knowledge. We have people all around the world using this technology and the feedback is incredible. People are visiting locations on their bucket list, revisiting their honeymoons or taking adventures they never thought possible,” Gray says.


Triggering conversations

UK-based advertising executive Dan Cole is another who readily recognises the value to be had by incorporating VR programmes into the aged care sector.

By day a creative director at Grey London, Cole has teamed with some industry colleagues to launch a VR film series specifically designed for those living with dementia and their carers.

Entitled The Wayback Project, the series recreates positive moments from the past, taking viewers back in time to trigger memories and spark what Cole refers to as “precious conversations”.

Cole, along with his business partners came up with the concept for the project around three years ago after he and several of his colleagues realised they had all been through similar feelings of helplessness while watching the disease take hold of a parent, grandparent or close relative.

“We’d all seen the value of reminiscing with old photos and music. Anything that can spark the person’s memory and trigger a conversation is a good thing and lets you have your loved one back for a little longer. In particular, I’d found that one trip with my own dad, driving him around the area he grew up in, sparked so many memories for him and conversations for us. Being fully immersed in the sights and sounds he was familiar with, seem to trigger more memories than other methods. This led to the idea that creating a 360 virtual reality film of a memory familiar to many, could have the same effect. We just wanted to try it to see if it would work.”

The developers consulted with leading global dementia care expert Dr David Sheard throughout the project, who then put them in touch with a local aged care home who were the first to view the 15-minute pilot film.

Cole says the residents who viewed the film remained engaged throughout before sharing what they remembered about the day.

“It couldn’t have gone any better. The staff told us that one resident who was smiling, laughing and chatting along hadn’t displayed as much emotion since she’d moved into the home. This has been the overwhelming reaction from feedback all over the UK.”

Aside from anecdotal evidence, the group also commissioned a study by an independent researcher with the feedback noting “obvious improvements in well-being were noticed in a number of people following the experience, including increased signs of; making contact with people, displaying warmth and affection, showing pleasure and enjoyment, responsivity to environment, expression of appropriate emotions and a greater sense of purpose”.

In addition, the author noted, “a significant decrease in signs of ill-being were also observed. These included decreases in depression and despair, anxiety and fear, agitation and restlessness, withdrawal and listlessness and bodily tension.”


Small details matter

Cole says The Wayback differs from other VR work targeting the aged sector most notably because many concentrate on taking the viewer to a place they can't access anymore, such as a beach, or helping people understand what dementia feels like. While others also use CGI, Cole says his team elected to concentrate on very evocative details in every film.

“For us, every detail is a potential memory trigger to somebody. Our pilot film recreates the street parties of 1953 in the UK around the Queen's Coronation. It was around the right period for the age-group that we are looking to help. We were searching for moments that most people would have some recall of so as a shared national moment it seemed perfect. It was a positive occasion so most memories around it are also positive. A lot of the memories were actually of the fact that it was the first televised event of its kind, with many people remembering buying their first telly for the occasion or piling into a neighbour’s to watch it. It's the small details like the food on the tables, the overheard conversations and the songs that trigger the most memories.”

The group were recently awarded the UK Challenge Dementia Prize, securing £100k to make two further films. These will also be UK-based, recreating the summer of 1966 around England's World Cup win, and the night of the Apollo moon landing in 1969.

Beyond this the project team aim to bring this idea to different countries and communities recreating memories relevant to them.


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