Dementia is the term used to describe a collection of symptoms that impair cognitive function. Those who suffer from dementia experience memory loss and declining social abilities; at on-set, the symptoms are generally mild, however, as the condition progresses, they can become severe and impede on an individual’s ability to function independently. Dementia isn’t one particular disease, but rather, there are several diseases that can lead to this neurodegenerative condition. Alzheimer’s disease, which affects memory and a variety of other neurological skills, such as decision making, problem-solving, and critical thinking, is the most prevalent form of dementia.
In 2104, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that more than half of the residents living in nursing home facilities in the United States were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. According to recent studies, nearly 90% of those who reside in assisted living facilities suffer from some type of neurodegenerative disease.
For residents of assisted living facilities who have been diagnosed with dementia, as their condition progresses and the symptoms become worse, they may require additional care. To provide the necessary care, these nursing home residents may need to be moved to what is referred to as a “memory care” center within their facility. In these centers, patients who are exhibiting severe symptoms of dementia can receive they require; however, it can be difficult for patients to understand and adjust to their new surroundings. It can be quite difficult for dementia patients to transition to the change, which worsens the effects of the disease and cause more confusion, depression, and other negative effects, such as thoughts of suicide.
Sadly, we were witness to the negative impact that transitioning to a “memory care” center can have on dementia patients. While visiting Maplewood Communities, an assisted living facility in Connecticut, one of the residents who had diagnosed with dementia needed to be moved to “memory care” center. We spoke with the caregiver of this resident at great length, discussing the symptoms of the patient and the effects that transitioning to a new physical location had on her. As the caregiver noted, the patient’s dementia had progressed to the point where she was exhibiting what is referred to as “expressive aphasia”, a term that describes the inability to successfully communicate. As can be expected, the inability to communicate had an extreme impact on the patient’s social-emotional well-being. According to her caregiver, the patient, who was once very social, vocal, and friendly, cold no longer express her thoughts or emotions.
The caregiver shared that the patient she was caring for was unable to speak or even smile for several months, and as a result, the once extroverted woman had become introverted; there was a marked difference in her personality and even her appearance. As the wonderful caregiver shared the story of the patient she so loved, we could see that she was overwrought with emotion; we, too, felt her pain and the pain that her patient was feeling.
We wanted to come up with a way that we could help the patient; to bring her smile back and hopefully restore her purpose and love of life. After deliberating, we set her up with a virtual reality headset, which transported her from the room she was in into a bright, cheery room where she was completely surrounded by puppies (because who doesn’t love puppies?) The reaction that followed nobody was prepared for; in fact, it brought tears to the eyes of everyone who witnessed it.
As soon as we turned on the virtual reality headset, it was like a light had been flipped back on. This fragile woman who was unable to smile, much less communicate anything at all, for a period of several months, was suddenly ushering the puppies to her side, petting them, telling them how adorable they were, and smiling from ear-to-ear. While watching the entire interaction was incredible, the absolute best part came when she removed the virtual reality headset. Even though the headset was off, she continued to smile, laugh, and talk; in fact, she couldn’t stop talking! She raved about the experience and told us that people of all ages should have the same experience, even children!
This woman, who was unable to smile or communicate, was completely transformed in a period of just 20 minutes! It was truly awe-inspiring. After our experience with Mickey, we are committed to bringing the same type of experience to dementia patients around the world. We’re working on launching a new initiative where we collaborate with assisted living facilities to bring virtual reality to senior citizens, and we can’t wait to see the difference we make in the lives of other people like Mickey.