How the Royal Free is pioneering virtual reality to train staff about dementia care

Danielle Wilde, Royal Free Trust Dementia Lead, and Antony Caiger, speech and language therapist, pl

Danielle Wilde, Royal Free Trust Dementia Lead, and Antony Caiger, speech and language therapist, place limb stiffeners on H&H reporter Anna Behrmann. Photo: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Health reporter Anna Behrmann joins hospital staff in donning virtual reality goggles to see the world through the eyes of a dementia patient.

Danielle Wilde, Trust Dementia Lead at the RFH puts the virtual reality headset in place. Photo: Pol

Danielle Wilde, Trust Dementia Lead at the RFH puts the virtual reality headset in place. Photo: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Out of body experiences are rather rare for me, so when the Royal Free invited me to test what life would be like as a dementia patient, I jumped at the chance.

The hospital is training staff, from cleaners to clinical directors, to empathise with dementia patients.

The virtual reality aspect of the training launched for the first time on Tuesday for Dementia Awareness Week.

I was fitted with a body suit, with a weighted back brace fitted around me, to mimic sclerosis.

Uncomfortable weights were placed around my ankles and wrists for a touch of arthritis and I was given a walking stick, as part of my 90-year-old woman armoury.

For the final step, dementia trainer Danielle Wilde slipped goggles over my head, playing out the virtual reality of an unknown room, which had little relation to the room I was standing in.

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I stumbled around, as she ordered me along – find your friend with the red coat, go to your bed – no, that’s the wrong bed, come here – no watch out for that table, sit on that chair – no that’s the wrong chair.

I felt embarrassed and humiliated, conscious that people were looking at me, wrong-footed, and lost in the world around me, which showed hazy pillars hanging inwards and distant swiggles on paintings.

At each firm order from Danielle, I felt more frustrated – how was I meant to know which was the right or wrong chair?

I had found a bed to sit down on in the corner, why did I have to now get up and find the “right” one?

I glimpsed my friend in the red coat, but she vanished before I could find her, and I began to doubt if she had even been there.

There were doors on either side in lines stretching ahead, but each time one opened, I saw bathroom tiles, rather than a bedroom, and I felt trapped in a game, where everyone else seemed to know what they were doing.

By the time Danielle took my goggles off, I was feeling a little angry – I would have liked her to call me by my name, perhaps, or held my arm and guided me.

Danielle had been playing the role of an impatient assistant nurse, and it really was excellent training in what not to do.

It made me understand a little more how my grandma might have felt like, and how unhelpful it is to receive instructions, if you no longer understand the context behind the words.

I also wasn’t previously aware how dementia can affect your spatial and sensory awareness and perceptions.

Danielle has trained 400 nurse assistants since November at the Royal Free trust on how to empathise with people with dementia.

The figures are stark across the NHS: Patients with dementia stay in hospital on average seven times longer than others and they are more likely to fall and hurt themselves. While two-thirds of dementia patients come into hospital from their home, less than a third will return, with the rest going into care homes.

A startling 40 per cent of patients at the Royal Free trust have dementia, compared to the 25 per cent national average.

Danielle is already pioneering improvement to dementia care in all departments, from Accident and Emergency, to intensive care.

Thanks to her training, a hospital cleaner diagnosed a patient with delirium, before the doctor came to that conclusion.

While dementia is still incurable, Danielle wants to make sure that patients do not deteriorate in hospital.

She is campaigning for open visiting hours for dementia carers, which means that they have the right to visit dementia patients as and when they wish. It is already currently in place in 80 per cent of Royal Free wards.

As she says, “moments of kindness and joy can be better than any pill”.