Empathy Promotion via Virtual Reality? Perfect for a Geriatric Care Provider

January 25, 2018

Image Credit: Embodied Labs.com


As the world population grows older, especially in the developed countries, the attitudes towards aging, the range and type of services required for this demographic segment and the very concept of the aging process are all shifting dramatically as we speak.

The older one gets, the greater is the part played by health care in his or her life. Health care services are not only expanding due to the need to cover more and more people, there are also new types of services offered, some creative, like obstacle courses in fall prevention, some more traditional. In any case, more and more health care providers need to learn to communicate with older patients, and these interactions definitely have their peculiarities and require special training.

There is a certain mindset typical for care providers that is best challenged, although only very gradual change is possible where stereotypes are concerned. Whether dismissing a pathology that is potentially treatable and could improve a patient’s quality of life as an old age-associated trouble, or overmedicating where lifestyle changes could be suggested, older patients are often subject to explicit or implicit ageism, a negative view of geriatric patients and a frustration with treating them. In any case, what is oftentimes lacking in the care provider is empathy.


Image Credit: Shutterstock / NTB scanpix

Empathy is essential in health care

Empathy is the ability to understand and, what’s important, share another’s feelings. Sharing the feelings of someone whose shoes you haven’t ever been in (not counting the past lives, if you’re a believer in reincarnation) is far from being easy. The difficulty is amplified manifold when the process involves not only the emotional state, but also the physical condition. It’s fairly simple to imagine walking around in a cast for a month after breaking a leg, but conceiving a state of irreversible physical frailty with multiple impairments that make you vulnerable and even helpless is an entirely different story.

With up to 22% of the US population projected to be 65 and older by 2040, the demand for a wide range of geriatric specialists is on the rise. But with the average medical student in his or her mid-twenties, how are trust and empathy to take shape in the doctor-patient relationship?


Personal experience turns into a scalable technological intervention

One ingenious answer is provided by Embodied Labs, where the creators of “We Are Alfred” project are using VR (virtual reality) to give anyone a chance to experience what aging may feel like. The Embodied Labs’ founder Carrie Shaw got the idea when caring for her mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In an attempt to share her experience, Shaw launched her master’s degree project, which subsequently became a prototype of this much-needed use of VR technology. It only seems logical that virtual reality, a technology that allows one to dive into a world radically different from one’s own, would be perfect for promoting tolerance and empathy.

Immersing any viewer in the life of a patient via VR is far more striking than watching a video or hearing a person’s story, even when told first-hand. The simulation is not too long – six episodes from the life of 74-year-old Alfred take up seven minutes of time. They range from a visit to a doctor’s office to a birthday party, with some everyday moments in-between. The viewer sees through his eyes (the visual impairment that he suffers from seriously interferes with perception – it is macular degeneration, the most common visual issue in the old age that creates a large dark spot in the middle of the field of vision) and has to endure the same hearing impairment that Alfred has.

The visual and hearing impairments often lead to an impression of cognitive disorders, but while they are deeply frustrating, the cognitive functions may be completely intact. Understanding what a patient may be dealing with besides a specific syndrome or complaint that he or she may have come in to treat promotes empathy, which, in turn, definitely improves the overall treatment experience and improves its result. The patient’s mindset is crucial to physical well-being, and for an older person an extra bit of understanding may prove to be a healing wonder.

Here is the Embodied Labs video:



While this is still a small-scale project, hopefully, Embodied Labs can find the means to spread their innovative Alfred project and develop a range of VR experiences related to geriatric care for the caregivers – both medical professionals and family members – in order to enhance their understanding and empathy for their loved ones and patients.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.