How design is being used to help people with dementia

Not only is virtual reality (VR) a growing area of research for dementia, but it is also very close to home for us! Jan Wiener and his team are just down the road from the Aetha Design Studio at Bournemouth University. Here they tell The Guardian how they are using VR to change lives.

I shared an article not so long ago which highlighted how virtual reality (VR) could be used to help people with dementia but as this concept has grown I thought it would be worth sharing some more details on the subject in a blog. VR has been used to calm patients, rekindle long-forgotten memories and has even led to previously uncommunicative patients being able to speak again.

VR is being used to not only help people with dementia, but also to increase awareness to the general public by putting them in the place of a person with dementia. Jan Wiener at Bournemouth Universities’ department of psychology uses a VR program to transport The Guardian journalist Jules Montague into a world where each numberless door looks identical and each endless corridor leads nowhere. The researchers are using this technology to help design buildings and environments that are sympathetic to people with dementia. Reduction in navigation skills are often the earliest signs of dementia and could start to take effect decades before an illness is diagnosed. German and Dutch researchers conducted an experiment where they detected impaired navigation skills in young adults that showed a genetic high risk of developing Alzheimers. Over the last 15 years, Wiener has been using psychological and neuroscience way-finding research to redesign environments. VR enables Wiener and his team to create environments during the design process where they can test layouts and iterate designs before any building work has been started.

Even colours, shapes and textures can produce discomfort and disorientation that could be eliminated by design. A black doormat could be appear to be a hole and shiny floors can look like water. So how can design help? Examples include using contrasting colours to separate areas can help with navigation, using a colour border around light switches to make them easier to see.

Elsewhere, last year Alzheimers Reserach UK partnered with Deutsche Telekom to produce a VR game open to the general public where anonymous data can be gathered to be used help researchers. They claim just 2 minutes using Sea Hero Quest VR is the equivalent to 5 hours of lab research. Sea Hero Quest VR is available on the Oculus store, Google play and the Apple store.

Back in 2016, Alzheimers Research UK also launched a project called ‘A Walk Through Dementia‘ where they teamed up with Visyon to produce a Google Cardboard app that puts the user in the shoes of a dementia sufferer.

There was even a successfully funded Kickstarter project to produce a series of films for Alzheimer’s sufferers to help trigger memories of the past.

Hopefully we’ll see more instances where improvements in technology is being used to improve people’s lives and increase awareness for diseases such as Alzheimers.

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