Virtual Reality Unlocks New Therapy for Alzheimer's and Dementia
7 minute read
Getting older comes with experience and wisdom, but memory starts to fade and, in some cases, disappears completely. Memory loss and neurodegenerative diseases are common as we get older and are a frightening prospect.
However, while mortality and the ravages of time are an age-old problem, human ingenuity and innovation continue to fight the tide. Modern advances in technology have found a way to trigger memory recall and improve cognitive health through the use of virtual reality.
Not All Fun and Games: It’s Therapy
Virtual reality is more than just video games and entertainment. It is the next step in treating neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s. Adult communities are using virtual reality more frequently as a way to trigger memories for those with dementia.
In just seconds, you can use Google Maps to take a person back to their childhood street or neighborhood. Using virtual reality also helps professionals see the world from a patient’s point of view.
Patients using virtual reality have reported feeling like they were really there in the moment. Forgetting you have a headset on and being immersed into another world removes patients from their current existence, which may be depressing and frustrating.
Life becomes more than four walls and a structured timetable; studies have found that virtual reality reduces social isolation and depression.
So far, programs like Google Maps appear to be the most effective and enjoyable. Visiting old neighborhoods and favored vacation spots triggers positive memories and emotions.
In addition to this, dementia patients have enjoyed experiences with animals, new adventures, travel, and interactive exercises. Virtual reality removes them from their daily routine and gives them new opportunities.
Virtual reality is more than therapy for dementia patients, it is training for healthcare professionals. VR experiences are made depicting the life of individuals living with debilitating neurodegenerative diseases.
In this way, others can see what their world is like and how confusing and frustrating it can all be. The goal is to train professionals to better understand and empathize with their patients, which will lead to more efficient care.
Technology Isn’t the Only Solution
As virtual reality continues to be explored as a therapeutic option for dementia and other cognitive diseases, there is still much that can be done to help without the use of technology.
Alzheimer’s and dementia are scary and frustrating, as most people struggle with the deterioration of cherished memories and loss of independence. The good news is that there is plenty you can do to make their world better.
Being involved is the best way to prevent social isolation. Sadly, many people think patients with dementia want to be left alone, but this could not be further from the truth. They may not express emotions at all times (depending on the severity of their condition), but they are human, and humans need to be social.
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If your loved one is in a living facility, make sure they have programs and activities to keep patients involved. Outside of living communities, it is important to include dementia patients in outings, gatherings, and events.
Social isolation is the leading cause of depression and early death for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, so make sure you keep them involved.
It is more practical than enjoyable, but making living spaces less frustrating has a positive impact on the health of those with dementia. Uneven lighting and too many patterns can be confusing, as well as reflective surfaces.
Reduce glare and shadows as much as possible so it is easier for them to move around their space without confusion. Use large, clear pictures to identify items hidden from view.
For example, label the cupboards and drawers with pictures of the items inside, such as their favorite mug or outfit. You need to prioritize which items to label, because too many pictures will be overwhelming and confusing.
Large panes of glass can be hazardous because they are hard for dementia patients to see. Be sure to mark them with stickers or labels to warn of their presence and avoid accidents.
Let Them Be Useful
One of the biggest struggles for those with dementia is no longer feeling needed or useful. Find activities they can not only be a part of, but that they can help with.
While anyone can suffer from depression, those suffering from dementia have much higher risk. Sharing information and being useful in a project gives meaning to their activities and improves their morale. They can help with simple household shores, such as laying out clothes to dry, gardening, tidying up, and helping with dinner.
Helping and being useful gives meaning, and having a purpose promotes better physical and cognitive health. In addition to helping with daily tasks, having them share knowledge or teaching you something makes them feel valued and boosts their emotional health.
Spend Time With Them
Beyond social activities and events, it is important to spend one-on-one time with your loved ones. In the same way that virtual reality transports them back to a previous life, you can do the same.
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Listen to their favorite old songs, watch old movies, look through family photo albums, and share old anecdotes. You can take them on a trip down memory lane just like virtual reality, only this time you get to share it with them, which makes a big difference.
Whether they are helping with chores, listening to old tunes, or you are visiting a museum, patience is a necessity. Let them do things at their own pace and own interest levels and let them lead.
Do not ever point out their mistakes or speak harshly to them. Be supportive but not condescending when they get frustrated with something. If dementia is challenging for you, imagine how the person affected is feeling.
Be patient, empathetic, and supportive; you will both handle the disease much better.
The Bottom Line
Dementia is a common part of the aging process. While certain risk factors increase your chances of developing dementia, cognitive decline is a part of getting older that we have to accept.
We can also accept that dementia doesn’t have to be the end of life. Technological advances and transporting patients to a new virtual world is just one way we can make living with dementia better.