Learning > Tech

Dementia patients take to VR aids

Janice Tai on 21 Apr 2019

The Straits Times


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Virtual reality (VR) devices seem the preserve of young, switched-on techies, but they are having a transformative effect on some elderly folk like Mr Ho Chee Kiong.


When Mr Ho, who has dementia, first entered a senior daycare centre at Ayer Rajah a few months ago, he shunned the activities. Instead, he stood at the gate and shook it violently, demanding to go home.


But a dramatic change began about a month ago when Mr Ho, 82, sat still for a stretch of half an hour and managed to pronounce four Chinese characters clearly.


His care workers were all shocked, as his dementia had left his speech often unintelligible.


It turned out that he was viewing VR scenes of Thian Hock Keng Temple and was so immersed in it that he began reading out the words on its signboard.


Healthcare and senior care facilities here are testing the use of VR on elderly people, especially those with dementia, hoping that the technology will strengthen cognitive abilities or at least stem their decline.


VR developers immerse them in familiar places such as their old homes or neighbourhoods, or expose them to the faces of their loved ones, seeking to trigger memories.


This is a form of reminiscence therapy. Research has shown that it can improve cognitive functions and manage depressive symptoms.


Other uses include being able to help elderly residents "travel" to places they want to go.


"Sometimes, patients might say they want to go home because in their mind, they remember a previous home," said Mr Eugene Soh, founder of Mind Palace, a social enterprise that develops VR technology for seniors.


"The team can build that home for them in VR so they are in familiar settings and can calm down without the use of drugs," he said.


So even someone with mobility issues could take an overseas VR tour.


Dementia occurs when the brain is damaged by stroke or diseases like Alzheimer's, causing memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language.


There are around 50,000 people with dementia here and the number will exceed 100,000 by 2030.


Mind Palace has run VR trials on 500 people from nursing homes and institutions such as NTUC Health, Society for the Aged Sick, Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital and HCA Hospice Care over the past year.


Mr Ho tried the VR headset for a second time at St Luke's ElderCare centre on Wednesday last week.


He viewed a short snippet of chef Chan Hon Meng - more popularly known as Hawker Chan - cooking his famous soya sauce chicken.


He immediately took off the headset, saying that he was hungry. To his surprise, he found before him a steaming plate of chicken rice that the Mind Palace team had bought.


"Of course, ideally it is better for seniors to go out to these places or meet their family members more regularly in order to remember better," said Ms Fong Sin Dee, centre manager at St Luke's ElderCare.


"But sometimes, due to manpower constraints, or when they are weak and at risk of falling or getting lost outside, such a visual aid is useful," she added.


Other organisations are also testing technology to combat the scourge of dementia.


The Alzheimer's Disease Association (ADA) is using Senzeband, a gadget worn around the forehead to detect brain activity while the user plays training games.


"It has shown to improve memory and attention span over time," said a spokesman for the ADA, which will introduce the gadget at weekly sessions next month.


Dr Ng Wai Chong, chief of clinical affairs at Tsao Foundation, a non-profit focused on ageing issues, said the use of technology was wonderful, but also warned against prescribing a single tool for all dementia patients.


"What works for a person may not work for others. Even if it works, it may work only at a certain time of day, or it may not work after a few months, depending on the degenerative stage of the patients," said Dr Chong.


"So the innovators of products and caregivers should work closely together for the technology to be impactful."


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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