Virtual reality (VR) has occasionally been called the ‘empathy machine’ for its ability to put users in the shoes of others. VR has also been used as a very effective training tool that can simulate a whole range of scenarios for users. The Alzheimer’s Association is combining these two functions to help teach medical students what life is like with dementia.
The VR simulations lets students experience the life of Alfred, a 74-year-old with suspected mild cognitive impairment along with age-related hearing and vision loss. Or Beatriz, a middle-aged woman who is going through the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.
These VR scenarios are created to give students better understanding of the conditions, as well as promote empathy towards patients and their struggle with dementia. The VR training program was used as part of the Brining Art to Life program, which was designed to better prepare young people to interact with older adults with Alzheimer’s or other dementia conditions.
Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN, of the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, is a neurologist who created the Bringing Art to Life Program: “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 Potts. “It also may decrease the stigma and their negative attitudes about older people.”
“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.”
Neelum Aggarwal, MD, of Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, helped Shaw develop the Beatriz module and how to visualize what is happening in the brain with Alzheimer’s disease. “I’m often asked — what does it feel like to have dementia? These virtual reality modules can help others experience that,” said Dr. Aggarwal. “For the students, it’s a good check to see if they have empathy for their patients and are aware of any biases they may have towards people with dementia.”
For future coverage of how VR is being used for medical and training applications, keep checking back with VRFocus.