Virtual Reality for the Elderly

The average Australian can expect to live to 83 years of age, a 15 year increase since the 1960s. Approximately 14% of Australia’s population is 65 years or older, with these figures projected to rapidly increase to 19% by 2033. As this 65+ population grows, so too does the number of dementia sufferers, a disease that affects 1 in every 10 people over the age of 65 in Australia.

 

Dementia is a group of diseases affecting the brain. Dementias are defined as chronic or progressive, and result in a deterioration of a person mental capacity, most notably in memory, personality and behaviour. More well known dementias include Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and Huntington’s Disease. Sufferers can experience isolation and social withdrawal, depression, anxiety, aggression and irritability, disinhibition, repetitive behaviour and irrational reactions (see here). The burden of this disease doesn’t stop with the sufferer but also affects the family and loved ones. People with dementia often need full-time care and simple tasks such as taking medication, safely navigating their home, driving, hygiene and maintain good nutritional intake are examples of everyday tasks that many dementia sufferers cannot complete independently. The impact on carers cannot be underestimated, and contributes to the annual $4.9 billion national spend on dementia related health care expenses.

 

Due to the increase in the 65+ population coupled with the progress being made in the medical treatment of dementia, focus is now turning to ways to increase quality of life for these patients. Recent advances in technology have allowed easy access to, and integration of various technologies to help alleviate the negative impacts of dementia. Research carried out at Southern Cross Care and La Trobe University showed that use of a personalised Mp3 music player provided much need respite for carers and helped to increase quality of life and decrease stress for carers of people with dementia.

 

In another study being run in Melbourne, The Applying Virtual Environments for Dementia Care (AVED) project piloted a prototype tablet app that draws on virtual reality technologies to enhance quality of life for dementia sufferers and reduce the burden of disease. The app, which begins with a neutral room such as a sitting room, allows the patients to decorate the room in any way they wish, using different colour swatches and objects. They can also choose and dress an avatar that acts as a companion throughout the experience. This experience may allow anxious or withdrawn Dementia sufferers to engage with their environment in a new and meaningful way.

 

Research investigating the carer experience has also received attention. A training room has been designed that allows aged-care workers to be immersed in the cognitive and perceptual difficulties experienced by an Alzheimer’s Disease sufferer. The room, created by Opaque MultiMedia in consultation with Alzheimer’s Australia is based in Parkville Melbourne, provides carers with a unique opportunity to get inside the mind of an Alzheimer’s sufferer, from navigating the bathroom to experiencing dulled senses, this training room is taking health care to the next level.

 

While VR has been used extensively in various illness groups to successfully reduce the burden of disease (e.g. rehabilitation for burns, post-traumatic stress disorder and cancer patients, surprisingly little has been done for the growing elderly population. A significant opportunity exists within the aged care industry for the application of virtual reality technologies to increase the quality of life for this growing population. Build VR has partnered with Japara, Southern Health, Samsung, Swinburne University and La Trobe University to help assist with the development of these tools, and explore the use of virtual reality for these debilitating diseases. This in turn will reduce the burden of disease and increase the quality of life for all sufferers of dementia and their carers.

Published by: Build VR

 

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