Dallas senior living community explores VR with dementia patients

The expanse of space before 91-year-old Russell Craig seems endless as he gazes at the swirling galaxies and constellations. Thousands of miles above Earth, he turns his head only to be greeted by satellites and stars.

Yet in reality, Craig is seated in a chair, his feet planted firmly on the ground. While space may be far away, for residents of The Preston of the Park Cities, it’s just a click of a button away.

The Dallas senior living community introduced virtual reality headsets into their weekly activities nearly two years ago. Residents can do practically anything within the technology’s limitations, from exercising, to flying through mountains, to walking through the wreckage of the Titanic. Beyond its recreational aspects, staff at the community say it’s helpful in stimulating memories in residents with dementia.

“We had a resident in memory care who was in the military and had severe behavioral issues,” said Lana Francois, who assists with recreational activities at the facility. “Every time we put him into the virtual reality to fly, it calmed him. You could see it with the snap of a finger – you could see him change.”

The Oculus Quest technology was meant to engage residents regardless of their physical capabilities, but it has also proven to help with dexterity, focus and concentration. A study led by Dr. Chee Siang Ang saw the virtual experience provided a “soothing effect” to dementia patients involved, caused by the sense of immersion within a virtual environment. Conversely, the active involvement of the VR technology helped promote more meaningful engagement, even for short periods of time.

“We used to do Wii games on it, although it took the residents a minute to get used to that, so it’ll be about the same with any new games we introduce,” community life director Debbie Dickenson said. “Then they’ll be arguing to try and use it when they realize they are able to move and do whatever they would like in it.”

While Craig may be new to seeing space up close and personal, he was eager to do it again.

“I have a flight simulator on my TV and it’s kind of like virtual reality,” Craig said. “It’s not easy because I haven’t been briefed on how to use the controls. But I suppose kids do it.

“I can do it if they can,” he added.

Mark Denzin, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Dallas and Northeast Texas chapter, believes VR is similar to music theory when stimulating the brain in engaging ways. While he has seen positive results from the technology, he explains that it is only a way to help patients deal with dementia, not cure it.

“The brain being as complex as it is, I think the standard thinking behind what we can do is probably limitless,” Denzin said. “I believe that as science and technology collide, there could be a really unique partnership to help individuals with dementia or Alzheimer’s.”

VR’s benefit on dementia is a newer concept in the world of medicine, but studies show positive results. An article by Dr. Lora Appel and Dr. Jennifer Campos in 2021 reviewed 18 different studies regarding VR for dementia patients, with 89.5% of the included studies citing a positive emotional response and 73.7% targeting higher qualities of life for patients involved.

Dr. Jin Ryong Kim, assistant professor of computer science at The University of Texas at Dallas, agrees that this technology has the potential to benefit similar treatments.

“I think people are looking to haptics and VR because it has the power to make patients feel that it’s real,” Kim said. “Realism, immersion and interactiveness – these kinds of things can make change. Technology is going that way and one application is this medical field.”

Looking at more than just its potential for dementia residents, Dickerson says staff at The Preston of the Park Cities are trying to turn VR usage into a group activity to keep residents engaged while also exploring ways to help those with behavioral issues. She appreciates its ability to be geared towards residents individually by way of unique simulators and games. Francois sees its uplifting effect on dementia residents dealing with depression, bringing a smile to their faces.

“It can be a chore,” Dickerson said, “But once they get used to it, they like it and they’re excited to have a chance to do it again.”

Claire Tweedie wrote this story as part of her participation in High School Journalism 101, The Dallas Morning News’ high school journalism student mentor program.

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