Virtual Reality Helps In-Home Caregivers Experience Dementia, Dying

Using a virtual reality headset and the story of a veteran with lung cancer, a Los Angeles-based company is showing caregivers what it’s like to die in hospice care. The goal of the simulation, created by Embodied Labs, is to bring new dimensions to employee training.

“People will say, ‘Oh, so you’re teaching empathy, right?’ And I don’t think that’s what we’re doing,” Carrie Shaw, CEO and founder of Embodied Labs, told Home Health Care News. “We’re uncovering insights and letting people experience what they don’t know that they don’t know.”  

Since its release, the new hospice virtual reality simulation, “Clay,” has made national news headlines. It takes viewers into the shoes — and body — of Clay Crowder, a fictional 66-year-old veteran with incurable lung cancer.

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“I’m afraid it’s not good news,” the doctor says in the simulation, delivering the diagnosis to Clay and his family. He has only four to six months left to live.

Over the course of the approximately 30 minute simulation, viewers follow Clay’s journey into hospice care and, ultimately, end of life. Eventually, Clay dies in his home surrounded by loved ones.

“I became very emotional,” Daryl Cady, CEO of Hospice of Southern Maine, told Home Health Care News. “They were going around trying to find the tissues for me because it’s something I didn’t anticipate feeling so emotional about.”

Hospice of Southern Maine serves more than 1,600 patients and as many bereavement clients per year in two counties. It’s one of about 50 entities currently using simulations by Embodied Labs, which did an immersive visit at the hospice over a year ago to help inform Clay’s development.

Now, Cady requires all employees to experience the simulation as part of their training.

“Every person that we hire — from our IT guy to our front desk receptionist to our nurse practitioners — needs to understand how hospice affects end of life,” she said. “We don’t want anyone who works for us to fear it.”

And while the technology wasn’t designed with empathy in mind, it teaches users that and more, according to Keirsten Littlefield, RN and manager of Hospice of Southern Maine’s Gosnell House.

“This really [brings] you in to see what it’s like to be the patient, to be the patient’s family going through this really difficult time,” Littlefield told HHCN.

Clay, Beatriz and more

Clay is just one of many simulations available from Embodied Labs, which Shaw founded after losing her mother to early-onset Alzheimer’s.

To help her mother’s caregivers understand what the disease was like, she made goggles to simulate brain atrophy, covering one side with masking tape.

Years later, after getting her master’s degree in biomedical visualization, Shaw founded Embodied Labs in 2016. It’s grown to offer virtual reality simulations for hospice, Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration and high frequency hearing loss.

Rather than replace training tools, the simulations are meant to supplement those that are currently available.

“I think the critics are right when they say it’s still pretty early for immersive technology,” Shaw said. “That means we need to be asking, ‘What is meaningful today about learning with a virtual reality-based simulations?’ And you have to have an organization that wants to embrace it and be the human connector to really make it meaningful.”

One such organization is Nurse Care of North Carolina, an affiliate of Bain Capital Double Impact’s newly formed home care group Arosa+LivHome. It has been using Embodied Labs simulations to help educate caregivers for about a year.

Among the most useful to them has been “Beatriz,” a dementia simulation. It’s made caregivers more attentive and empathetic, according to Barbara Patterson, general manager of the Durham/Greensboro location.

“It’s very easy to tell caregivers, ‘Be careful how you approach your client because their vision changes,’” she said. “Hearing it is one thing, but being able to embrace and be Beatriz and see what those vision changes look like when it’s your vision is really powerful.”

Currently, simulations are optional for the North Carolina caregivers, but Arosa+LivHome is considering a larger rollout of technologies like Clay and Beatriz, according to CEO Ari Medoff.

“It’s a training experience people actually want to do and carry through with,” he told HHCN. “I would take a seven or eight minute training over an hour long training that is checking a box all day long.”

And as a recent personal investor in Embodied Labs, he’s betting that eventually others will too.

“It’s an important tool in the tool kit,” he said. “Let’s be clear: Virtual reality is at its early stages in terms of its potential, but when you line it up compared to other training options, the bang for the buck is extremely high and it’s only going to get better.”

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