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Virtual Reality & Dementia: BikeAround Memory Lane

As we age, our memories are no longer as sharp and we rely on others' help to recall events and enable us to establish a sense of place. For persons suffering from dementia it is even harder, as everyday their mental ability is compromised, affecting basic communication, visual perception and overall quality of life deteriorates. ‘BikeAround’ is an immersive virtual experience for the body and mind that allows people living with dementia to physically ‘cycle’ through virtual versions of their past, triggering memory and helping them regain a sense of autonomy over their environment. This innovation by Swedish biomechanical engineer Anne-Christine Hertz, in collaboration with Camanio Care has both visual and physical is set to change the face of dementia as well as cognitive disabilities.

Author: Siphilele Magagula

Image: Courtesy of Orlando von Einsiedel via Google Blog. | A scene from the documentary 'A Ride To Remember'


The Psychological And Emotional Impact Of Dementia

Did you know that every 3 seconds someone develops dementia? It was estimated that in 2017, the number of people living with dementia worldwide would reach approximately 50 million, although research shows that a majority of people living with dementia have not received a formal diagnosis. For generations dementia has primarily affected the elderly, however it is becoming prevalent in people younger than 65.

Dementia (which is not a disease, but a group of symptoms) is caused by damage in brain cells, resulting in memory loss, compromised reasoning and judgment, as well as visual perception - this causes communication and language barriers, stifling interactions. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia.

Memory is an important part of human life and interaction, it creates a shared history that provides a sense of place, context and structure to life. Once it is lost or compromised it becomes increasingly difficult to have a full grasp on life. A person’s quality of life deteriorates gradually and they more reliant on assistance with daily tasks, stripping them of their autonomy, leading to depression and an overall loss of morale.

How can we use technology and senses to stimulate the brain and conjure up memory and help improve quality of life for dementia patients?

BikeAround - A Virtual Trip Down Memory Lane

Biomechanical engineer and manager at the Centre for Health Technology of Halmstad, Sweden, Anne-Christine Hertz has responded to the dementia plight with the development of BikeAround - a stationary bicycle connected to a monitor or projector that gives users an ultra realistic view into their past. This eye opening technology was developed in collaboration with Camanio Care - a company specializing in robotics and assistive aids for healthcare. With the help of Google Street View and Virtual Reality technology, users are able to revisit their forgotten past by virtually cycling through familiar environments they have an emotional connection to, in hopes of triggering their memory.

To operate BikeAround users enter their desired location (perhaps their hometown's address) on the bike’s monitor, which instantaneously sends them on a virtual bike ride through familiar settings superimposed on the attached screen or projector. The user is in charge of the experience, using the bike’s handlebars and pedals to navigate through familiar territory. For those moments they are fully in control of their body and mind. Hertz hopes users’ memories will be triggered by experiencing these familiar locations. The BikeAround is also suitable for people with cognitive disabilities and can be used as an alternative activity tool for people with physical disabilities (balance issues, obesity, cerebral palsy, etc).

Images: Courtesy of Camanio Cares

George Fermanis of a Oshawa, Ontario retirement home shares - "Often memories are very tied to location," [...] "So we've been able to spark memory in individuals and really come through with very vivid details and stories associated with those destinations."

The mental and physical stimulation from the bike is said to cause a release of dopamine in the brain, which, according to a Google news release might help patients regain memory. Executive Director at Senior Weber Place, the first senior living community in the US to use BikeAround lamented, “This type of important stimulation promotes self-worth and joy and offers our residents the comfort of going down memory lane[…] in a forum that combines lifelong learning with physical and cognitive exercise.”

A Ride To Remember

Orlando von Einsiedel (director of award winning Netflix documentary ‘The White Helmets.’) did a short film in collaboration with Google called ‘A Ride To Remember’ - a powerful account on Swedish couple Laila and Bengt Ivarsson’s experience testing BikeAround. Bengt was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and in the film his wife Laila shares how in the year since his diagnoses her husband has trouble with memory and judgment when it comes to things like driving. He expresses how he has lost his driver’s licenses and his car, lamenting how he misses the freedom it gave him. The BikeAround is a symbol of hope for the devoted couple, as it presents an opportunity to regain Bengt’s memory and give him that sense of freedom and dignity he has since lost to Alzheimer’s.

See their moving story and their experience with BikeAround below:

Video courtesy of Google

Although it is no cure - BikeAround has proven the power of sensory stimulation and physical activity to spark memory and improving brain health. Research has been done on other forms of stimulation to potentially cure dementia - more and more research and resources need to be allocated towards sensory stimulation and the body.

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