At my Residential home, Belmont view, we recently trialed the use of virtual reality technology with some of our residents living with dementia. It entailed putting on a headset which covered the top half of ones face with goggles, choosing an environment to experience and being immersed in a different kind of reality. Whilst inside this reality, it was possible to interact with the environment using the two handsets, walk around the environment within its boundaries and to look around at different aspects of the environment. The environments available were; a hilltop where the resident could interact with a small robot dog, a pleasant beach scene or a peaceful forest scene with a lake. These visually stimulating environments were also accompanied by sound effects appropriate to that particular environment.
The idea of this exploration was to see whether residents would enjoy experiencing a new environment and whether this could be used as a reminiscence tool to prompt memories and shared experiences. The virtual reality experience could also be used to help individuals who feel physical, sensory or cognitive difficulties to experience places that may allow for some respite from the reality they currently experience.
We learned quite early on that with our residents living with dementia, having the headset on which prevents viewing of the actual environment was quite disconcerting and a little frightening. To help reassure our residents, we began the simulation with them sitting securely in a comfy armchair with familiar staff holding their hands and making sure that their presence was felt. Once the resident felt secure and happy with this, we then progressed to helping the resident to stand and accompanying them on both sides, supported them to walk around the environment if they were comfortable to.
An important part of this experience was ensuring that the resident did not feel like they were alone in this virtual world. By sitting at their side, holding their hand and offering constant reassurance and comments on the environment we could see on the screen in front of us, it allowed the residents to feel as though we were there with them.
The residents’ experience of virtual reality varied and some residents didn’t particularly enjoy it, some of them finding the headset a little too heavy and unnerving. These residents were supported to stop the experience very quickly and were helped back into wellbeing with hugs and cups of tea and biscuits. For those that didn’t seem to mind the headset, the experience was definitely a positive one and what is detailed here is 4 residents different experiences of the virtual reality simulations.
- One lady whom was particularly moved by the experience, was transported into the ocean scene, a relaxing view of gentle waves coming in and going out, accompanied by the matching sound effects. This resident told us that she felt very calm and relaxed, after a short while, she began making the motions of the waves with her arms, gently moving them back and worth. She repeatedly told us how beautiful it was and was moved to tears by the scene she could see. When experiencing the forest scene, the sound effects of the birds encouraged her to look around up in the sky and point to the birds she could hear in the trees.
- Another lady who experienced the same beach scene was very happy to be there and seemed to truly believe we had taken her to Whitby where she had first met her husband along the sand of the beach. She told us about her family holidays to the beach and having fish and chips as a Friday treat. We talked about living by the sea and how life was different and more relaxed by the seaside.
- Another resident who experienced the beach scene was fascinated by the scene she saw and begun singing; “Oh I do like to be beside the seaside” which prompted everyone to join in and have a good old sing-a-long. After this lady had taken the headset off and we showed her the computer scene which allowed us to see what she was experiencing, she gasped and said she couldn’t believe she was just there are the beach.
- A relatively new resident who happens to be quite young also tried the experience at the beach and when asked where he thought he was, he said Tunisia, where he had had many holidays. This then prompted him to tell us all about his holidays to Hammamet and Seuss as well as horse riding along the beach.
In our home, we base the majority of our care around the Validation approach developed by Naomi Fell. This approach consists of the acceptance of the individual’s own reality and is based on caregivers empathising with the world the person believes they are experiencing in order to understand that person better. The virtual reality immersive experience demonstrates a way a which we can create a new environment for the individual with dementia to experience, which they themselves can liken to something they have already experienced or seen. As a therapeutic tool, this experience is so immersive that residents can feel that they have truly been to this place that has been created for them and have escaped the possible monotony of their day to glimpse a new part of the world and to feel as though they are part of it.