Dementia is today’s most common neurodegenerative disease, marked by a progressive decline in an individual’s mental ability, eventually becoming severe enough to interfere with daily life. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which impairs memory and a host of important executive functions, including critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014, over 50% of nursing home residents were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias (1). Modern data estimates that 87% of assisted living residents have some level of cognitive impairment.
For those assisted living residents, if their symptoms progress past a certain point where it becomes clear they need an additional level of care, they may move to the memory care section of their building or neighborhood. While symptoms can be managed, this subsequent transition can be difficult to understand. If not handled carefully (and even when handled really well), the change in physical location, staff, and fellow residents can lead to increased confusion, depression, and other negative affect.
We experienced the impact of this transition firsthand the first time we visited one of the Maplewood communities in Connecticut. There was a resident there who had recently moved up to the memory care floor, and her caregiver approached us with her story specifically. This resident was currently at the point of the disease progression where expressive aphasia had set in, meaning she had difficulty communicating effectively. This took a toll on her emotional health, because she had always been the outspoken, outwardly kind, smiling resident who would be the first person to say “hi” to you in the morning. It had been a few months dealing with this, and had completely withdrawn. According to her caregiver, it had been several months since he had been able to converse with her, and as long since last seeing her smile. As he shared her story and the timeline, tears were welling up around his eyes – it was clear that this had been a tough couple months for all involved. After some quick deliberation, we got her setup with her Rendever headset, and we transported her to a room full of adorable puppies. Her reaction left everyone in tears.
All of a sudden, a light turned on. This woman who hadn’t smiled or communicated clearly in months was suddenly calling out to the puppies around her, telling them how beautiful they were, and grinning widely throughout the experience. But the most amazing moment came at the end of the session when she took the headset off. The joy and laughter from the experiences continued, and when asked what she thought, she couldn’t say enough. She went as far as to walk one of our team members out the door, telling him how we needed to be using this with children in schools to help them better learn about the world. Think about that – she went from being noncommunicative to pitching new business ideas in a matter of twenty minutes.
Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias have a long and drawn out progression of symptoms. Things start out slowly, and slowly progress. Not every symptom will last forever, but many do and gradually get worse. The transformation that we saw in Mickey was special, and we’re working to understand the underlying mechanisms at play. When we checked in with the team months later, we learned that she continued to attend the weekly virtual reality sessions, and she held on to her ability to communicate effectively. She continues to live on the memory care floor and is still battling dementia, but she can continue to talk and have conversations. As someone who had always been outgoing and loved talking to others, giving her back that central component of her life is truly magical, and an astounding improvement in her quality of life.
At Rendever, we’re working day-in and day-out to provide these same experiences to seniors across the globe. We’ve heard amazing things from the communities that we’ve worked with, and are excited to be launching the Caregiver Collaborative – a community-based effort to bring these same experiences and stories to family caregivers who are aiding their loved ones at home. We’re currently selecting our initial batch of caregivers, and if you would like to be a part, you can fill the application form here.