AlzU Blog

Virtual Reality Technology May Help High School Students Understand Alzheimer's Disease (Part 1)

A new virtual reality tool is helping high school students gain insight into what it’s really like to have Alzheimer&r’s disease.  The virtual reality learning program was presented at this year’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Chicago.

The reason the technology was developed was to give people an opportunity to step into the shoes of a person with mild cognitive impairment, or someone who is going through the various stages of Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

By being able to experience, first hand, how it feels to be a person with Alzheimer’s, students can gain insight and develop a higher level of empathy for those who struggle with MCI and dementia.

What is VR Simulation?

Virtual reality (VR) simulation was recently used as part of a training program at Northside College Preparatory School in Chicago.  20 high school students were involved in the program. 
The VR technology was used as part of the “Bringing Art to Life” program, aimed at helping the students better relate to people residing at long term residential facilities and those in adult day centers with AD.

According to Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN, of the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, “What we’re hearing from the students is that experiencing the virtual reality training before they volunteer improves their empathy and increases enthusiasm for working with the seniors—two documented outcomes of our program.” Potts also remarked that the technology will hopefully lower some of the negativity and common stigma that is sometimes associated with older adults. 

Why Virtual Reality?

Potts is a neurologist who developed the Bringing Art to Life Program.  He was inspired to do so, after his experience with a close family member who had AD—his own father.  Pott’s dad loved painting with watercolor during art therapy class at the adult day center he attended. 
Alfred and Beatriz VR Models

The VR models are named Alfred and Beatriz.  Alfred is a 74-year-old African American man suspected of having mild cognitive impairment; he has normal hearing and vision loss—age related.  Beatriz is a middle-aged Latina, she presents with the continuum of the stages and symptoms of AD.
Once the high school training program is finished, Alfred and Beatriz are scheduled to be used as part of a volunteer endeavor ( at the Bringing Art to Life Program) with undergraduate students at the University of Alabama.

The Alfred model portrays a live video, showing the world through the eyes of a 74-year-old person with MCI and age-related hearing and vision loss.  The Beatriz model is a digital version, exhibiting 5-minute stories of what it is like to go about a normal daily routine in the life of a person with AD—during various stages of the disease.  Examples of dementia related experiences that Beatrice exhibits include struggling with eating and dressing (and other activities of daily living) and experiencing a common dementia related confused condition referred to as sundowning.

Beth Kallmyer, MSW, is VP of Care and Support at the Alzheimer’s Association.  Kallmyer said, “It’s interesting that the creators of the modules also highlight other issues that some people experience as they age, including communicating inappropriately with others because they may not be able to see or hear well, in addition to the memory problems that are common for persons with Alzheimer’s.”

CLICK HERE to learn more about the VR project by reading “Virtual Reality Technology May Help High School Students Understand Alzheimer’s Disease Part 2.”

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