Dementia Care and Virtual Reality

The world faces one of the greatest societal and economic global health challenges of the 21st century; dementia. Given that Virtual Reality (VR) is increasingly being seen as a transformative technology, in collaboration with Prof. Dympna Casey (NUI Galway), Dr. Sam Redfern (NUI Galway), Dr. Gabriel Miro Muntean (DCU) and other researchers, I am currently investigating the manner in which VR can be used to positively improve the quality of life of a person with dementia (PWD).

Although very much at its early stages, our research aims to progress the understanding of how to use immersive VR for people with dementia to support them in building and maintaining social connectedness, enhancing their quality of life and creating opportunities for new learning

According to Alzheimers Disease International, one new case of dementia is diagnosed in the world every three seconds. If current trends continue, the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2050, dementia will affect over 152 million people worldwide, which means that by this time, nearly 2% of the world’s population will have dementia. In the absence of a cure and due to the economic and social burdens caused by this disease, countries are examining alternative interventions to support affected people and their caregivers. VR is one such intervention. Targeted initially at the entertainment and gaming sectors, today’s greater accessibility to VR has resulted in a wide user demographic. Because of its positive neurobiological impact on a patient, immersive VR is increasingly being used in the medical domain from pain management to mental health and rehabilitation.

Fig.1 The VR Aquatic World, Chan et al, 2019

As an example of the neurobiological power of immersive VR, an Australian study showed that when children (aged 4-11 years) wore a VR headset and interacted with an underwater adventure game, their stress and anxiety from venous needle procedures diminished significantly, in addition to their post-procedure anxiety. This application of VR in paediatric pain management has positively addressed one of the most predominant forms of pain in children’s hospitals.

Within the context of dementia, VR is being investigated from a number of different perspectives. These include; dementia care education as a ‘high fidelity’ simulation training environment to foster empathy, competence and communication skills in those caring for people with dementia and the use of VR as an intervention to engage a PWD and improve their quality of life by increasing social connectedness.  Studies show that reminiscence and music are two key strategies which are used to promote social connectedness and reduce loneliness for a PWD.

While reminiscence helps in forming and cementing relationships, evidence suggests that it may also; improve the quality of life, behaviour and self-esteem of a PWD, improve cognition and mood, reduce symptoms of depression and reduce the strain experienced by caregivers and relatives.   In 2014, researchers Siriaraya and Ang created 3D VR experiences to support interaction for a PWD in long-term care.

In 2017,  Alzheimer’s Research UK released The Wayback. The Wayback allows people with dementia to use VR to reminiscence and be transported to different points in the past (e.g. the Queen’s 1953 coronation).

In 2018, researchers Moyle et al.; found that a VR forest (Figure 2) was perceived by people with dementia, family members and staff to have a positive effect on the quality of life .

Fig. 2 Research work carried out by Moyle et al

As a strategy to promote social connectedness and reduce loneliness for a PWD, music has the potential to reduce agitation, anxiety and depression and improve cognitive functioning.  

For a PWD, the opportunity to engage in reminiscence and music related activities may not only reduce loneliness but also help them retain a measure of autonomy as they make choices regarding what music to play and what to reminiscence about. This is the potential and reality of VR.

So, all in all, what our investigation into the literature has shown is that immersive VR undoubtedly promises much in the creation of supportive and meaningful virtual worlds to improve the quality of life of a PWD. However to date, there remains a paucity of research on both the potential for customised, immersive, interactive multi-user VR recreational experiences to support reminiscence and music for people with dementia and whether VR positively impacts on a PWD’s quality of life. Much is done, yet much remains to be done.


Dr. Attracta Brennan,

School of Computer Science, NUI Galway, Ireland