The (virtual) reality of dementia

May 10, 2019 | Health
A nursing professor at MacEwan University is taking an unconventional – and high-tech – approach to teaching her students about the nuances of an increasingly prevalent disorder.

Lisa McKendrick-Calder, an assistant professor in MacEwan’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, has begun using a virtual reality app, designed by Alzheimer’s UK, to give students a firsthand perspective on what it’s like to live with dementia. After strapping on virtual reality goggles, the students view three videos from the perspective of a character named Mary, a woman living with dementia. Through Mary’s own point of view, they see her try to carry out everyday tasks, like grocery shopping and preparing tea for her family, and how the disorientation, memory loss and sensory discomfort that come with dementia makes these tasks challenging.

Lisa has used the app in two different classes: a fourth-year course on chronic disease, and a first-year course on communication.

“The fourth-year students already had an understanding of what dementia is and what the symptoms look like from a textbook perspective, so what I was looking for was an immersive experience that would make them really think about what it's like to live with it dementia, and what those patients need from us.”

The objective for the first-year class is slightly different, but still centred on an empathetic view of an often-misunderstood condition. “I realized it might be a beneficial learning experience for our first-year students’ communications course, because the app makes you ask yourself, how would I communicate with Mary? How does she communicate what she needs?”

So far, the results have been positive.

“I did a qualitative research study that looked at dementia knowledge and attitude before and after the VR experience,” says Lisa. “Almost all students say it was an effective way to learn about dementia. Even students who have worked with patients with dementia found that they learned from the experience.”

The study may have broader implications. Cases of dementia are on a sharp rise, but despite that, there are still misconceptions about the condition (for example, many people don’t know that one of the symptoms is sensory impairments related to vision and hearing), and it remains an area that requires more specialized nurses. Lisa hopes that by shedding more light on the disorder, more students become interested in working in that field.

“Research has shown that many nurses still don't have adequate knowledge or appropriate attitudes towards caring for someone with dementia. Couple that with this huge expected increase in the number of patients with dementia, and it just seems worth tackling in any way I can. I’m hoping it might inspire my students to take a long-term interest in the area.”

For now, Lisa sees the potential for the VR experience to have an immediate impact on her students’ lives and practice. “Even though they may not specialize in dementia care , this perspective is useful for anyone working in long-term care. And really, their experience with dementia might not come from being a nurse – they may have a family member with dementia who they need to help care for some day, so I hope they walk away with a broader perspective of what dementia is like.”

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