Can Virtual Reality Help Fight Dementia?

What U.K.-based health care company Virtue is doing to help people age well

By Taylor Smith

According to the World Health Organization, “an estimated 47 million people currently suffer from dementia and that number is expected to increase to 75 million by 2030. It is projected that the number will triple by 2050.” To put these numbers into perspective, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that “the cost to care for an Alzheimer’s patient in a private room in a nursing home is around $97,455 per year.” This is where U.K.-based health care start-up Virtue steps in (https://www.virtue.io). With the goal to “empower the silver generation,” Virtue aims to “develop transformative solutions for aging well.”

Of particular interest to physicians and caretakers around the world is LookBack, Virtue’s time-travel therapy for dementia patients. This award-winning virtual reality app allows those suffering with any degree or form of dementia to “time-travel” back to places, times, and periods of their lives that are most familiar to them. The fact that is a downloadable app means that the cost of this form of therapy is relatively low and potentially accessible to nearly everyone.

The founders behind LookBack are Arfa Rehman and Scott Gorman, who came up with the initial idea when their good friend’s grandmother developed dementia and began routinely driving through the night looking for her childhood cabin in Norway. The program uses a personalized sensory experience to allow family members to travel back to the life experiences that are most prominent within their mind. Rehman and Gorman suggest that this time-travel experience, from the comfort of one’s own living room chair, eases the distressing nature of the disease and allows patients to forge connections within their own psyche that they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to. As stated on their website, “Who said virtual reality is only for adults? We believe older adults deserve to benefit from innovation as much as anyone else, and so do your loved ones.”

Medical practitioners like Helen Partridge, clinical lead at Meadowview Care Home in the U.K., remarks, “Most of the residents were more vocal than normal, recalling memories from times they had spent in the past. I noticed that most of them showed feelings of happiness and were smiling and laughing as this induced conversation.”

This potential for human connection is extended by the social nature of the app, which enables patients to share their “memory experiences” with family members, physicians, caretakers, and loved ones through a simple share button on their smartphone.

Reminiscence therapy, as it is known, has been documented by multiple leading researchers in the Journal of International Psychogeriatrics and The Journal of Post-acute and Long-term Medicine. Also, a 2017 study from Georgetown University Hospital suggested that “reminiscence therapy involving a 90-year-old man who suffered from dementia (bringing in photos associated with positive memories) would lead to him recalling the moments captured in a surprising amount of detail. His wife was incredibly surprised by this, and after three months of the therapy, she found that there was significant improvement in her husband’s behavioral symptoms and stated he was calmer and easier to direct.” (For the full article, visit (https://www.ajgponline.org/article/S1064-7481(17)30144-6/fulltext)

Hopefully, Virtue’s LookBack app can become a means for both caretakers and dementia patients around the world to improve their quality of life through gentle and accessible VR experiences, thus lowering some of the pricey costs associated with therapy for dementia patients.

To learn more, visit https://www.virtue.io/lookback/.