Home' Australian Ageing Agenda : AAA May-Jun 2017 Contents E
ver yone is talking about virtual reality but what is it and
how can we use it in practice?
Virtual reality or VR refers to computer generated
immersive and interactive experiences.
Put simply, by wearing a headset a person can enter a real
or imaginar y setting and interact with this new environment,
moving freely around and experiencing sights, sounds and
other sensor y experiences.
Early adopters of VR in practice and research found that
they were limited by technology. For example, screens and
computers were fixed meaning that people needed to travel to
a specific place for a limited session.
VR in its current form, however, has developed alongside
new technologies in gaming and smart phones, combining
interactive gaming experiences with accessibility.
Improvements in software and hardware mean that more
sophisticated programs and a more immersive sense of reality
can be achieved with headsets that are not tethered to a
computer or location. This opens up the potential use of VR
to people in a whole range of settings and with a range of care
and support needs. The application of gaming knowledge
is also not just about the technology. Researchers in the
area highlight the knowledge that game developers have
accumulated on optimising human experience and organising
collaborative communities. This same knowledge could be
powerful if we also applied it in our practice and engagement
with older adults.
VR and dementia
There has been interest in the use of VR with people who have
dementia for more than a decade.
In 2003, a small study was undertaken in the UK to
examine the experiences of six people with dementia as they
explored a virtual outdoor park. The researchers reported the
participants moved freely about the virtual environment and
they generally felt in control of the interaction.
The potential uses of VR with older people and people with
• as a tool for assessment and diagnosis
• gathering knowledge about how the brain works in
navigation and problem-solving
• as a resource for memory rehabilitation, pain management,
reminiscence, anxiety management
• as a fun activity
• an education and training tool, and
• in design applications.
At HammondCare we are actively engaged in exploring the
benefits of VR within the context of person-centred care. What
follows are two examples of our work in pain management and
as an empathy-building platform to inform dementia design.
Virtual reality for the treatment of pain has been around for
some time. However, it has been used primarily in the acute
pain setting. For example, a virtual reality “game” called
SnowWorld allows people living with pain after severe burns to
travel and interact with a world of snow and ice. This is basically
a form of distraction and has now been used in other settings to
reduce the pain of short-term procedures and operations.
It is only more recently that there has been interest in
treating chronic pain with VR. There is now evidence that
chronic pain is linked to changes in the brain, particularly in
scenarios like amputation or spinal cord injur y.
It is believed that these changes occur because the brain
no longer gets the normal visual and sensory cues from the
missing limb or below the spinal cord injur y and the brain tries
to reorganise to accommodate.
Unfortunately, these brain changes appear to be linked to
pain. VR can be used to create an environment where people
can interact and have a strong impression that they can move
their missing limb and it is believed that this may reverse the
brain changes that cause the pain.
The research in this area is very young but there are
some promising signs that it may be a useful and effective
The increased accessibility of VR means that people with
chronic pain can be treated frequently because they can use a
device more regularly, either on a daily basis or when the pain
It also opens up the possibility of providing another
effective non-medication option for people such as seniors and
those with dementia who are tr ying to keep medication use to
a minimum to avoid side effects.
Empathy and design
The Virtual Reality Empathy Platform (VR-EP) is a virtual
reality platform developed with insights from HammondCare’s
Dementia Centre in partnership with two Scottish companies
Aitken Turnbull Architects and Wireframe Immersive.
Described in the Royal Institute of British Architects’
journal as “cutting edge immersive software designed to help
architects improve the lives of people living with dementia”
From education and training to guiding
facility design, the emerging uses of
virtual reality in dementia care are far
reaching, but an ethical approach is
required, writes DR JULIE CHRISTIE.
There is growing interest in using
virtual reality among seniors and
those living with dementia.
52 | MAY–JUNE2017
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