Review: ‘A Walk Through Dementia’ VR Experience

By Gemma Pitman | 7th October 2018

What is dementia?

The medical term ‘dementia’ describes various brain disorders that result in a loss of brain function. These conditions are progressive and most commonly affect people over the age of 65, however people of any age can be affected.

Statistics from the Alzheimer’s Society show that there are currently 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to over 1 million by 2025. This will soar to 2 million by 2051. It is estimated that 1 in 3 people will care for someone with dementia in their lifetime. We think that makes the understanding of dementia across society very relevant – for carers, friends and family, health service providers and all of us who will likely interact increasingly with people with dementia in the course of our work and social lives. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting 62 per cent of those diagnosed.

Using VR as an empathy tool

Alzheimer’s Research UK have created a Virtual Reality (VR) experience called ‘A Walk Through Dementia’ which is designed to put people ‘in the shoes’ of someone living with Dementia. The app is available on both the Apple Store and Google Play Store and can be used with a smartphone and VR headset.

Within the app, there are three different scenarios which users can experience:

  1. At the supermarket
  2. Walking home
  3. At home

Each of these scenarios is designed to put the users in the shoes of someone living with Dementia, whilst they undertake an everyday activity such as going to the shops or making a cup of tea.

What happens during the experience?

Dementia is a condition which affects people in different ways, and so the challenges demonstrated during the VR experience is not a comprehensive list of all the ways in which it can affect someone. Each of the experiences presented numerous obstacles (both physical and psychological), which commonly affect people with Dementia, and these are listed below:

At the supermarket

  • Supermarket sounds can be distracting and disorientating (e.g. till beeps at the checkout area, security alarms going off)
  • Finding it difficult to read and understand a shopping list
  • Feeling disorientated and unable to locate items within the store
  • Being overwhelmed by the variety of items available. Feeling unable to make a decision.
  • Becoming extremely anxious at the possibility of becoming separated from a companion.
  • Being confused when selecting items, and picking up the wrong products (e.g. trying to find teabags but instead picking up biscuits)
  • At the checkout area, being made to feel rushed by the cashier as there are other customers waiting.
  • Becoming confused if faced with several questions at once (e.g. the checkout assistant asking “do you have a bonus card” and “do you want help with your packing”).
  • Difficulty counting money and recognising monetary values
  • Short term memory issues
  • Feeling embarrassed about being confused, particularly when there are other people around
  • Getting some words mixed up when talking to others

Walking home

  • Mistaking a stranger for someone familiar
  • Getting lost, even if only a few steps have been taken away from the correct route
  • Feeling anxious and panicked
  • When looking at things around her, gets the colours mixed up (e.g. calls a red car an orange car, and calls a white flower a pink flower)
  • When starting to get anxious, vision becomes blurry
  • Feeling self conscious and thinks everyone is looking and watching
  • When approaching home, feeling like the steps to the door are impassable, despite having no difficulty with steps on previous occasions

At home

  • Difficulty in remembering how to make a cup of tea
  • Short term memory loss – can’t remember what each person wanted in their tea (e.g. milk or sugar)
  • When putting sugar in a cup of tea, absentmindedly keeps putting spoonfuls in
  • Difficulty in understanding and remembering lots of instructions (e.g. making multiple cups of tea)
  • Difficulty with recognising objects even when in direct sight
  • Poor co-ordination (resulting in accidental spillage)
  • Failing to recognise that the tea has not been made correctly
  • Lots of hesitation and lack of confidence at completing the task

How do people react to the experience?

At several accessibility events we’ve organised, we’ve used the ‘A Walk Through Dementia’ VR experience as an empathy tool. We’ve found it a useful tool to get people thinking about how they can design products to be dementia friendly.

A man using a VR headset at an event with London city behind

The general consensus from people is that they find the experience overwhelming, and often feel anxious when they first complete the experience. People also related the VR experience to their own life experiences, often talking about older family members who have dementia, and how they felt that they understood the condition more after completing ‘A Walk Through Dementia’.

“In the store where I work we have a ‘focal point’ design on the floor which some older people have thought is a hole. I didn’t understand why before, but now I do”

“My grandmother has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I’ve been wondering how to help her. This VR has made me realise what the world must be like for her and so I feel like I have a better idea on how to help.”

Immediately after someone completed the experience, we asked them to write down how they felt. The word cloud below shows the results.

Word cloud displaying the words humbled, confused, terrified, distressed, frustrated, empathy, discombobulated, worried, insightful, intense, immersive, dependant, stressful, paranoid

Would you like more?

Please contact us if you are interested in learning more about what we do at Open Inclusion