Virtual Reality and Reminiscence Therapy

New technology can make remembering a more enjoyable experience for people with dementia.

Dementia is a cruel disease, robbing people of their short-term memories and then progressively taking more and more of their cognitive function over time. Often, patients with dementia become confused, disoriented, maybe even combative or afraid as their ability to understand and connect with the world around them declines.

“Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias can cause lots of emotional and psychiatric issues — depression and agitation,’ says Brian Geyser, APRN-BC, MSN, chief clinical officer, at Inspīr, a senior living facility in Manhattan.

Although hope abounds that a cure for dementia will eventually be discovered, for the time being, therapies for the disease tend to be more palliative than curative. One treatment that many caregivers have found to be helpful is reminiscence therapy, and virtual reality (VR) technology is helping make this an event more effective treatment.

“Reminiscence therapy is a treatment that uses all the senses — sight, touch, taste, smell and sound — to help individuals with dementia remember events, people and places from their past lives,” the Elder Care Alliance, a California-based network of senior care communities, reports. “As part of the therapy, care partners may use objects in various activities to help individuals with recall of memories.”

It’s in that recall of long-ago memories that residents can often find a comforting connection to their former selves. Geyser says that neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy Body Dementia and Parkinson’s disease “typically affect short-term memory first. They attack the hippocampus, which is responsible for processing short-term memories. Someone with Alzheimer’s might not remember what they had for breakfast or that they saw the doctor a week ago, but they will remember in more detail aspects of where they went to school for university or elementary school. They’ll talk in detail about earlier times and that often brings them happiness to do, whereas thinking about more recent memories causes anxiety and frustration because they can’t access those memories any longer.”

Often, reminiscence therapy can be accomplished by looking at old photographs or eating foods that remind a person of their childhood or young adulthood. Smells or music that connect them to a previous and happy time of life can be very beneficial in stimulating a positive response. “As you sit with someone and go through a photo album, they may be filled with joy and happiness. That feeling of joy can help them sit calmly and quality for an hour or more. It’s usually a very pleasant experience for them to do that,” Geyser says. And the effects “can last for hours after. For someone who’s experiencing agitation and anxiety, one way to pull them out of that is to reminisce with them.”

Photo albums are great, but as VR technology becomes more sophisticated and cheaper to implement, some long-term care facilities are finding high-tech ways of reminding residents of younger days to help them feel calmer and more at peace with their current situation. “When virtual reality came along, it seemed like a natural way to improve reminiscence therapy,” Geyser says.

Today, some long-term care facilities are investing in VR headsets and systems that can provide a more immersive reminiscence therapy experience for residents. The results have been extraordinary for some patients, Geyser says.

“For example, we have a resident who’s originally from Sweden. She was a PhD and psychology professor, and she’s in middle-stage dementia. She has a hard time expressing herself verbally and gets locked up in her brain. She can’t get the words out. So we thought to try the VR reminiscence therapy to bring her back to her hometown and the university where she taught.” The team used Google earth and street maps technology to model her university and hometown and virtually “bring her home.”

The response was incredibly rewarding for her caregivers, Geyser says. “She lit up with joy. She was smiling and pointing at the images. She started talking in her native language as she was touring us through the building.” She relayed details for graduation ceremonies she attended and the whole experience unlocked a flurry of happy memories that made her feel more at ease. “It was just really powerful to watch that 45 minutes” of her remembering her earlier days, Geyser says.

The 360-degree view that VR can offer may spark even more memories than a simple photo album, because it’s more immersive and sort of “tricks” the senses into thinking you’re back in an old, familiar place. “What it shows us that the memories of the distance past are shrouded, but they’re still locked in there. These images unlock those memories that are sort of stuck back there in the recesses of the mind,” Geyser says.

As VR technology continues to evolve, the price drops, making it a more accessible therapy for long-term care facilities to implement. Geyser says several companies offer VR reminiscence therapy packages for long-term care facilities at a reasonable prices.

You can tailor the programming options to individual residents or create shared travel and reminiscence experiences for residents. Have several residents traveled to the same place in the past and would enjoy feeling as if they are going back there? With relatively little effort, you can create a VR experience for them that feels like a group tour.

As VR technology continues to improve, along with our understanding of dementia, look for VR reminiscence therapy to become a more widespread and powerful way of providing a welcome respite for people with cognitive decline.

Topics: Alzheimer's/Dementia , Featured Articles , Resident Care