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CARETAKVR: A Virtual Reality Environment to Train Alzheimer's Caregivers
The number of patients diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease is significantly increasing, given the boom in the aging population (i.e., 65 years and older). There exist approximately 5.5 million people in the United States that have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and as a result friends and family often need to provide care and support (estimated at 15 million people to the cost of $1.1 trillion). Common symptoms of Alzheimer's disease include memory loss, drastic behavioral change, depression, and loss in cognitive and/or spatial abilities. To support the growing need for caregivers (generally family and friends), this project developed a prototype virtual reality (VR) environment for enabling caregivers to experience typical scenarios, as well as common strategies for managing each scenario, that they may experience when providing care and support, thereby providing. For instance, a patient may turn on a gas stove and then leave, forgetting that the stove is on. The caregiver then would be required to turn the stove off, to minimize any potential dangers.
The prototype environment, CARETAKVR, was developed as an undergraduate research project for learning the process of research as well as the Unity programming environment and VR. The prototype provides a gamified training tool, masking scenarios as objectives and success with a score, to enable the potential caregiver attain rewards and achievements for correctly supporting the patient. The virtual patient is controlled via artificial intelligence and follows an initial set of guidelines to behave as a patient with early-stage Alzheimer's may. The caregiver is provided with a set of tasks to perform, in VR space, to achieve their goals for each scenario. Common tasks include Check Refrigerator, Check Stove, and Comfort Patient. This project has been demonstrated to colleagues in the health care domain and has seeded future collaborations to iterate the capabilities of this tool. All project artifacts have been open-sourced and are available online.