Midsection of elderly woman holding hand of nurse. Caregiver is supporting senior female. They are at home during coronavirus lockdown.
(Credit: Morsa Images / Getty Images)

A senior living provider has created a virtual reality dementia training program it hopes will span the continuum of care and become a model for the industry.

Chicago-based senior living provider CJE SeniorLife and Elderwerks Educational Services partnered with Toronto-based virtual reality company VR Vision to launch Dementia Reality, a new educational tool for professionals caring for older adults living with dementia.

Dementia Reality consists of five interactive, virtual reality training programs that teach the who, what and how in caring for someone with dementia, according to CJE Director of Engagement and Innovative Programming Catherine Samatas. Each module addresses a different aspect of caregiving, using a person-centered, intentional approach to caregiving that is role specific.

Samatas told McKnight’s Senior Living that the first two modules facilitate morning care activities, whereas the remaining modules address communication and behavior in dining and activity settings, as well as de-escalation behaviors.

Each module offers two perspectives — the right way and the wrong way to administer assistance. The program also allows caregivers to experience everyday activities from a resident’s perspective.

“It’s important you’re not just watching them do their job, but you’re watching the response in the person with dementia when it’s done one way versus another way,” Samatas said. “You get to see in a safe way how bad care produces bad outcomes.”

She added that the training builds on the personhood framework.

“The integration of personhood is not just an option, but a necessity for building that caregiver relationship that makes a difference between good care and just care,” Samatas said. “This is trying to really focus very deeply on understanding what it means to be that person and how to work with that person given an understanding of them.”

An idea

Woman sitting in chair wearing Dementia Reality goggles
CJE SeniorLife staff member undergoing Dementia Reality training. (Image courtesy of CJE SeniorLife)

Samatas said the idea for Dementia Reality came to her several years ago when she introduced “Instant Israel” — a virtual reality trip to Israel — to residents with dementia in CJE’s Lieberman Center for Health and Rehabilitation, which provides dementia care. She recounted the story of an unengaged resident who suddenly was animated and excited to see familiar surroundings. 

“At that moment, I realized this is a teaching tool,” she said. 

After searching for partners, CJE developed a relationship with Elderworks in 2020 to develop the training and curriculum, then worked with VR Vision, a virtual reality company to put the pieces together. A grant from the Chicago-based Foglia Family Foundation helped develop the program. 

CJE did a soft launch of the program in the spring at the LeadingAge Illinois annual meeting, followed by a professional launch in June at Tamarisk NorthShore, a CJE-managed community in Deerfield, IL. CJE Vice President of Marketing and Sales Paisley Valentincic told McKnight’s Senior Living that the organization is speaking to other providers and building relationships to take the program beyond CJE’s walls. 

Teaching empathy

Samatas said that although other virtual reality experiences exist, this is the first one that is training-oriented and teaches from an empathetic perspective. 

“At the end of the day, what we’re hoping to generate is an empathetic response,” she said. “It honors the adult learning perspective of having it be relevant and applicable. 

“Virtual reality creates a memory for them of what it feels like. It stays with them a lot longer than any video you watch or conversation you have.”

Dementia Reality is being rolled out in a train-the-trainer format to make as big of an impact as possible. Samatas said that CJE has completed its beta versions of training and will be rolling out staff training at its Weinberg Community for Senior Living, a Deerfield, IL, assisted living campus.

Although Samatas said that CJE is still developing the fee-based training program, she eventually hopes to train “hundreds of thousands” of caregivers in “as many places as possible,” including residential homes, home healthcare agencies, certified nursing assistant schools and other communities.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for empathetic experience that can really change the experience for not just the caregivers, but for the people they are caring for,” Samatas said.

Providers interested in learning more about Dementia Reality can contact Valentincic.