Virtual reality nature environments offer an opportunity for people with memory loss

Posted on 15th March 2021

BlueHealth researchers from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health have published the results of their study looking at the acceptability of virtual reality (VR) natural environments among people with memory loss.

The research was conducted in memory cafes, which are welcoming places at which individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease, or other forms of dementia, can participate in social, fun and educational activities. The study aimed to find out not only how acceptable the memory cafe users found the experience, but also looked at how carers and staff perceived this use of VR technology.

Ten adult users with memory loss participated in this qualitative study, together with eight carers and six volunteer staff members, all of whom were recruited from two memory cafes in Cornwall, UK. A total of nineteen VR sessions were held, and audio of these events – and subsequent interviews – was recorded for analysis. Patterns and themes in the data were identified using framework analysis, a systematic and flexible method suited to collecting data from such recordings.

The majority of participants responded positively to the VR nature scenes, finding them soothing and able to evoke memories. They felt immersed in nature and saw the VR session as an opportunity to ‘go somewhere’. However, for some participants the experience was not entirely positive and found it ‘strange’.

On the basis of their detailed analyses, the researchers concluded that VR nature experiences represent an opportunity for adults experiencing memory loss and offer the potential to enhance their quality of life.

The research gathered participants reactions, with many expressing amazement at the feeling of being immersed in nature:

“I mean it makes you feel, good in a way, you know, just as you can see it, and um, you don’t see anything else, just all those fishes, the massive fish”.

A few of the participants found themselves responding to the situations they saw and described how they could have interacted with the people on the beach: “I liked seeing the people on the beach and I liked to, playing the Frisbee thing, you know the one on the beach and he was standing there and I thought, ‘well is he gonna talk to me?!’ you know [laughs] and I saw the chap in the water catching it and it was just nice to be ‘in’ there, especially when the surfer came down by your side and went down, it was just like being there.”

All of the participants responded positively to the VR nature experience, typically describing it as ‘beautiful’ and ‘lovely’ and enjoyed nature and appreciated nature ‘views’ and ‘scenery’. Some added that they particularly enjoyed the colours in the scenes:

“I’ve enjoyed looking at them. They’re lovely pictures and that. All the colours are beautiful”  “Oh, very pretty. I love the colours I do. Awww”

Many of the participants appreciated the familiarity of the scenes and recognised local places in Cornwall: “It was really nice, nice to see places I recognised. I mean it’s always nice, when you can identify things—you do it don’t you, even when you’re watching the telly and that sort of stuff”

The scenes also prompted many to talk about their past experiences of nature or past experiences in general. One participant said “…in a way it brings back things to you. You know, going to the seaside, the sea coming in. I think perhaps, that’s it, it brings back the memory of it”

One participant with dementia was prompted by the scenes of the underwater coral reefs to recall when he had seen the corals in Egypt in the 1950s. He described how he had been in the British Army doing his National Service and had gone down the Gulf of Suez and swam in the sea where there were “lots of little fishes” and coral.

Some were also drawn to comment on local places they remembered:

“Oh wow I can see a beach now. Oh yeah, it’s a bit like Polzeath it is, with people on it. Oh yeah, people playing games an’ that on the beach. It’s hot ‘cause they got their shorts and t-shirts on. It’s very nice. Oh I can see a pink bucket as well. A…a very busy beach…very busy…oh yeah, very nice. [inaudible] they’re going out in the boat now. Oh yeah, there’s a chap going out on the beach—on the boat now. Ooh, very nice”

The study notes that given that presence is a subjective experience, the qualitative approach used  contributes to a developing field of research where evidence is still limited. It also enhances our understanding of the wellbeing benefits that people with mild to moderate memory loss can derive from a VR nature intervention, and shows promise for those living in long-term care. Since people with advanced dementia in residential care are less involved in activities, the VR nature intervention could be a way of engaging them in meaningful activity—with support from carers. Future work should build on lessons learned from this study and continue to work with people with dementia in developing and implementing VR technology in long-term care settings.

 

A summary of the study finding can be found here:

Acceptability of virtual reality nature environments for people with memory loss – BlueHealth (bluehealth2020.eu)

 

 

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