A Walk Through Dementia

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By Tim Parry | Wednesday 01 June 2016

As one of the world’s leading dementia charities, we take serious our role of communicating the impact of dementia on society, on families and, of course, the individual. While our scientists have a battle on their hands finding new ways to fight the disease processes behind dementia, there’s another battle to win in moving the collective public understanding of dementia out of the dark ages.

Previous research we’ve conducted with the public has shown that only around 23% recognise that dementia is driven by physical diseases in the brain. This reveals a lack of understanding around the physical nature of the condition. This was further born in the research when we asked around 2,000 people to summarise how they understood the condition. Here are typical responses:

  • Dementia is an ageing process that causes forgetfulness
  • It’s when older people don’t remember what they should
  • You can become forgetful as you get older
  • The mind getting worn out
  • Just muddled thinking

These responses are sadly indicative of the majority; that dementia just arrives uncontested as we age and is no more bothersome that a little muddled forgetfulness.

Having lost my wife’s car keys this weekend – I forgot I put them on a café table when we were out shopping – I can testify that forgetfulness is something we are afflicted by throughout life. As anyone who has experienced dementia in a loved one will be quick to tell you, we are not talking about forgetting where our keys are, but rather what keys are for.

Nor is dementia exclusively a condition of memory loss. The cognitive symptoms experienced during Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are myriad, profound and hugely challenging. How can we help people gain a greater appreciation of the impact?

A Walk Through Dementia is an effort to answer this question. Developed over the past year in close collaboration with people living with dementia and their carers, the Dementia Research Centre at UCL and technology experts Visyon – all of whom gave their time and resources for free – the new Google Cardboard app provides a first person glimpse into life with the condition.

With the emergence of virtual reality apps and software this year, we have an unparalleled opportunity to place people in the heart of new experiences. Demo applications of VR on smartphones provide thrilling glimpses of life in space, at the bottom of the ocean and any and every locale in between. For charities, the technology can open up a new way of helping people understand conflict, humanitarian or environmental issues. For us, we can help people understand dementia beyond memory loss alone.

A Walk Through Dementia tells a simple everyday story that many of us take for granted. A trip to the supermarket for some tea bags and milk, the walk home and making a cuppa back in the kitchen. Through computer generated and live action environments, the app places you in the shoes and behind the eyes of someone with dementia undertaking these tasks, revealing the practical hurdles the condition puts in the way and the emotional impact these frustrations can lead to.

The emotional response to the symptoms is a crucial component of the app. Through our focus groups, people with dementia told us that while, for example, disorientation and problems with navigating presented practical difficulties in their lives, it was the sense of panic and vulnerability that experiencing these symptoms caused that was important to convey. We were fortunate enough to work with stage and screen actor Dame Harriet Walter who gives voice to the app. Dame Harriet drew from her own experience of dementia which affected both of her parents as she prepared for the role.

After we launch A Walk Through Dementia at a special installation at St Pancras International Station, we’ll take it to the Cheltenham Science Festival and then make it available at many of our public events into the future. We hope it will help us reflect in a unique way how dementia impacts on lives.

You can download the app for free from the Play Store now, and you can order a special Cardboard headset from the Alzheimer’s Research UK shop to experience it at its most powerful. The app also works without Cardboard, and much more information about the project is available from the website.

This is a cross-post with the Huffington Post UK Tech for Good blog.

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About the author

Tim Parry

Tim is Director of Communications and Brand at Alzheimer’s Research UK leading a team covering media, science communications, branding, health information, digital development and special projects. Tim joined the charity in 2008 and has overseen communications during a period of growth, including leading the change in brand to Alzheimer’s Research UK in 2011. Before joining the charity, Tim worked in PR and communications roles in both the public and private sectors, covering education, the environment and industry.