Using VR may help people with dementia return to some parts of their old lives.

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Researchers are investigating how VR technology can help seniors. Getty Images

Using virtual reality (VR) technology to improve health has several applications, including bettering the quality of life for people with dementia.

A recent study shows how VR can help even those with advanced dementia disease like Alzheimer’s disease.

The research was led by Dr. Chee Siang (Jim) Ang, a senior lecturer from University of Kent, and used VR devices on eight patients who were retained in a psychiatric facility.

These patients, who had a mean age of 69 years, all live with dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s disease. The report was published this month in Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

A workshop with clinicians was conducted to select appropriate environments that would be calming.

Each participant used a VR headset to visit five virtual locations. These included a countryside, a sandy beach, a rocky beach, a cathedral, and a forest. The patients got to choose their environment on their own.

The team monitored multiple 15-minute VR sessions and reviewed feedback from patients and their caregivers. Some patients wanted to be in one environment repeatedly, while others wanted to explore more.

Ang’s team reported that VR helped the participants recall old memories. It did that by offering new stimuli that they could otherwise not attain due to illness or inaccessibility.

The caregivers were able to learn more about the patients’ lives, so it improved their social interaction.

In an art session a few weeks after a VR session, one patient reminisced about the experience, and then drew a seaside picture. This suggested to researchers that VR had a positive impact on his mood — along with his ability to enjoy the creativity process.

“VR can clearly have positive benefits for patients with dementia, their families, and caregivers. It provides a richer and more satisfying quality of life than is otherwise available, with many positive outcomes,” Ang said.

Better quality of life has been shown to reduce levels of anxiety, depression, and hostility within wards, the study found.

Ang previously tested VR technology on patients with dementia in day care centers and residential care settings. He believes additional research will assess virtual environment elements that can make VR so effective and shed light on how to use it more effectively.

As it becomes easier to produce virtual environments, creators could make VR settings that are custom to the patient. This could include allowing them to explore their home or a favorite location. Ang will be studying this in the future.

Ang contends that VR technology is more affordable, and people will be able to purchase their own units. He also believes it’s a misconception that older people are hesitant to use technology.

“Tech can be designed to be user friendly and accessible to older users to meet their specific needs,” he told Healthline.

Ang said the team didn’t specifically study memory, or whether VR improved their memory.

“Instead we are more interested in their general well-being and enjoyment,” he said.

The goal of using VR in the study was to bring the “outside” into the hospital. It was designed to give patients experiences to engage in life that weren’t otherwise possible due to being hospitalized.

Because it was one of the first studies to use VR on people with severe dementia, the team had to be careful about side effects from prolonged use.

Even in such a short period, his team observed some positive outcomes that were encouraging, Ang said.

Ang explained that if using VR can somehow improve the general mood and well-being of patients, it can allow them to experience a life they can no longer access.

Lora Appel, a post-doc research fellow at OpenLab in Canada who has researched VR’s use with dementia patients, said there is only anecdotal evidence to support the idea that VR can help patients’ symptoms and improve quality of life.

No systematic evaluations have been published, so there’s no concrete evidence that VR has benefits, she told Healthline. She is part of a few trials, including a randomized control trial based in Canada to examine the effect of VR on clinical metrics such as medication use, restraint use, falls, bed sores, vitals, hospital readmission rates, and the like. It will also look at VR’s effect on symptoms as well as quality-of-life factors.

“There is potential and big hopes from within the medical community, but we are in early days,” she said.

Maree McCabe, CEO of Dementia Australia, published an article on this topic last year. The group has also used VR to train workers on understanding how dementia changes a patient’s perspective.

“The research into VR for people living with dementia is in its early days. Much more work needs to be done,” she told Healthline.

To date, the focus of VR research for dementia patients has been on improving their quality of life — not improving memory. This is done through having experiences that are no longer easily accessible for them. In doing so, it can inspire them to reminiscence and enhance social interaction after the experience.

While VR is yet to be a proven aid, experts say it might be OK to try it out over short periods of time.

Apps such as LookBack, ImmersiCare, and Rendever aim to help. They haven’t been studied enough to be prescribed, so be vigilant about how much time a person spends on them, and monitor their reactions so they don’t become overwhelmed.

“I would say give it a go, initially for a short period,” Ang added.