Virtually Yours: How People with Dementia Respond to Virtual Reality Programs

As virtual reality (VR) technology becomes more common and less expensive, the aging services industry and researchers are beginning to explore its potential uses with older adults. One report covered the use of a VR program with older adults with dementia.

The VR program chosen was a virtual forest, which employs a large interactive screen and motion sensors to immerse an individual in a virtual environment simulating movement through nature. Participants included 10 individuals with dementia, and their experiences were facilitated by staff. The researchers looked at the impact of this program on participants’ engagement, apathy, and mood, as well as the experiences of staff and families.

All of these participants perceived the virtual forest to have a positive effect overall. Six of the ten participants reported positive experiences, though . others found it boring or confusing. Staff noted individual differences in how residents responded to VR, and felt the program was more engaging for individuals with mid-stage dementia. Those with earlier dementia could get bored, while it seemed too confusing for those with late-stage dementia. Only one participant wanted to undertake the experience with a facilitator. On the other hand, all but two of the staff and family members interviewed felt that facilitation was needed.

Measurements used showed that the residents experienced significantly more pleasure, and a greater level of alertness, compared to individuals with dementia in a non-VR activity setting. Four residents displayed between one and four minutes of pleasure during their eight- to twelve-minute VR experience. Nine out of ten residents displayed alertness for more than five minutes. On the other hand, residents with dementia also showed a greater amount of fear and anxiety compared a larger sample of individuals with dementia in a non-VR activity context.

While this study shows promise for the use of VR with individuals with dementia, it also suggests that in designing VR programs for this population, attention needs to be paid to how the interface can be as engaging as possible while not being confusing, and to taking steps to reduce fear and anxiety that may accompany this experience.


Moyle W, Jones C, Dwan T, et al. Effectiveness of a virtual reality forest on people with dementia: a mixed methods pilot study. The Gerontologist. (2017)  DOI: 10.1093/geront/gnw270

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