Exploring virtual reality with our dementia patients

Eight of our patients with complex dementia have been exploring the use of virtual reality headsets, as part of an exciting research project in collaboration with the University of Kent.

The participating individuals in our care have each been offered a ‘menu’ of different virtual environments to experience, such as a forest walk, exploring a sandy beach or a cathedral. By wearing the virtual reality headsets, patients can experience different simulated natural environments from the comfort of their ward, which can offer a positive and stimulating experience.

All eight individuals have been supported by our caregivers during the project, and the initial feedback has been exceptionally positive.

Researcher Vienna Rose, a research assistant funded by our Research Centre, is working on the project. She explained: “I am one of a team of three (alongside Dr Inga Stewart and Dr Keith Jenkins) working with the University of Kent on this exciting project, which highlights how external collaborations can bring new ideas and technologies into the care setting with the potential to benefit the wider mental health community.

“The aim of the study was to explore how feasible it is to use virtual reality equipment with our patients who are living with dementia. The whole multidisciplinary team – including psychologists, occupational therapists and nursing staff – were involved with this project, which enabled us to combine our research with clinical knowledge and expertise; an approach that is integral to the research strategy being developed at St Andrew’s.“

The eight patients identified by Vienna are all cared for by staff within our Dementia and Huntington’s Disease integrated practice unit, which is a specialist service based in Northampton. Vienna continued: “During the trial we collected data on engagement, affect and behaviour that challenges. Our initial findings demonstrate a significant increase in pleasure and alertness, which has been supported by positive feedback from both patients and caregivers. Also, contrary to clinical and carer expectation, all eight of our patients were content to wear the headset.”

The virtual reality content used in the study was created using a 360-degree video camera. Traditionally, creating virtual reality content requires significant technical expertise, but by using a 360-degree video camera our clinicians and carers were able to generate a personalised virtual reality experience for the patients.

The project was featured as a workshop at the Improvements in Specialist Neuro-Care Conference last November; where visiting clinicians had the opportunity to try out the technology for themselves. Further analysis by St Andrew’s and the University of Kent is taking place now until June – with two papers due for completion before the end of the year. The two organisations are now working together to explore how use of this technology could be extended to provide new therapies for patients with complex dementia.

For more information about the Research Centre, email the team or click here.

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