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Santa Clara students, faculty to develop and commercialize VR training program for Alzheimer’s and Dementia caregivers.

Santa Clara students, faculty to develop and commercialize VR training program for Alzheimer’s and Dementia caregivers.

Emma Cepukenas ’23 recalls the time her great-grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and the confusing role that came with caring for a loved one suffering from memory loss.

“It was too much for her,” Cepukenas says of family members who stepped in to help. “I saw firsthand how hard it was. They had no professional training.” After two years of home care, she says, he was transferred to an adult care facility.

The Santa Clara student’s story echoes that of an estimated 15 million Americans, mostly unpaid family members, friends and others, who help people with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Yet few of these caregivers are ever counseled or trained to help them cope with the daunting responsibilities that come their way.

For these invisible second patients, as they are often referred to, life becomes a grueling and emotional roller coaster as they juggle their own responsibilities and worries with the stress of caring.

But a newly formed partnership in Santa Clara called Maude’s Ventures @ SCU aims to help by creating a virtual reality training program for caregivers.

Supported with a $125,000 grant from the Richard and Maude Ferry Foundation in Seattle and supervised by her grandson Quentin Orem ’11SCU students and faculty from the fields of public health, engineering, computer science, theater arts, marketing and communications are preparing to tackle the project, which could be ready for the market in 2024.

Healthcare innovation from start to finish

“It’s a tremendous endorsement of what we’re trying to achieve with the Bioinnovation and design laboratorybecause we want to be involved in all phases of health innovation,” he says Prashant Asuriwho directs the lab and directs the effort along with a colleague julia scott, a senior researcher at the lab whose studies focus on brain health and brain aging.

“This is the first time we’re doing something from start to finish, from idea to prototyping to commercialization,” says Asuri, associate professor of bioengineering.

The idea of ​​immersive dementia care training is just one of four technical approaches to dementia care presented by an SCU student research team, many of them public health majors, during a one-day design sprint promoted in July by the Ferry Foundation was hosted. A panel of experts from the University of Washington’s Memory Care Hub met with each team and then listened to their suggestions. The panel was intrigued by all four concepts but gave the VR program the green light for its combination of impact, innovation and feasibility.

Scott and Asuri say those yet to be named Product is inspired by a current Virtual Reality (VR) application which enables someone to experience the world through the eyes of people with dementia. The lab’s approach puts the user in the shoes of a caregiver, not the patient. This type of training can provide caregivers with skills and insights that will help them manage the challenging aspects of caregiving, such as:

“It can be so difficult to do on your own,” says Scott, who has cared for relatives with dementia.

The team of Cepukenas VR training program, Kennedy Anderson’24, and Leslie Catano ’22 found that almost all available dementia care training did not use VR and that most learning methods were passive.


Leslie Cataño (left) and Kennedy Anderson speak to panelists.


Handover from one team to another

Scott describes the product as a virtual environment that simulates typical care situations in which challenging scenarios can be played out. Achieving this requires collaboration between subject matter experts in dementia care from Santa Clara’s public health majors and screenwriters from either the communications or theater arts departments.

Photorealistic situations will ask caregivers how they would do it dealing with certain behaviors; for example the best way to deal with a person with dementia who is fixated on going to the store.

“In their head,” Scott says of people with memory loss, “they want to go outside and go shopping, but of course they can’t do that on their own anymore.” The VR training program, she explains, can teach caregivers how to de-escalate this situation by guiding them step-by-step through a process.

“They’re prompted to make a decision and the consequences of that decision are played out and they can watch it,” says Scott, adding that pop-ups will appear in the VR program asking the caregivers what they should do next.

Scott and Asuri believe that the VR idea and its software, which could be updated regularly, provides caregivers with more realistic and valuable insights than reading training manuals or watching training videos.

Anderson, whose grandfather and godmother live with amnesia, has used VR before and believes the experience translates well for caregivers.

“We know it’s used in nursing schools and medical schools,” she says. “It could be a great thing for dementia care.”

“Do something worthwhile”

for katano, who graduated this summer, being part of the VR training team was “an opportunity to do something worthwhile”. Along the way, it has also taught her important skills that she can use in a future career in health statistics, including improving her research skills, writing succinctly about a complicated subject, and making a public presentation like she did in Seattle.

The design sprint was practically a 24-hour master class in itself, according to the students. Each team submitted its first pitch to a panel of nine stakeholders and experts in the field. After receiving the panel’s feedback, the teams visited local retirement homes and a nursing school, where they met with a faculty member specializing in gerontology to gather more information.


Santa Clara students in Seattle where they pitched their ideas for Maude's Ventures @ SCU.

Santa Clara students in Seattle where they pitched their ideas for Maude’s Ventures @ SCU.


Along with tips from stakeholders and ideas gathered from their on-site visits – for the VR team, this included ensuring their digital VR stories represent people from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities – the teams returned to UW Memory Hub back to where they were they reworked their ideas and slide decks before we do a second round of pitches this afternoon.

“It was a bit nerve-wracking,” Cataño recalls of the 30 minutes each team had to repeat their pitch. “We didn’t have time to practice but I think it went well and it really taught me to be confident.” Asuri and Scott believe that sentiment was shared by members of all four teams.

From this fall through 2024, the VR project will move into the research and development phase, during which engineering and computer science majors and related faculty members will be recruited for their technical and design input. Asuri and Scott also hope to hire business majors when the time comes to manufacture and market the product. Every six months, the project team will report to the Ferry Foundation Board of Directors on established benchmarks.

Runner-up ideas examined

Asuri describes all four teams that participated in the Phase 1 ideation portion of the project as “four different champions of four great ideas.” The three runner-up ideas, he adds, will be refined and evaluated by SCU faculty for potential development as a capstone for senior engineering design or independent study projects. Ideas and presenting teams include:

1) McKenzie Himes ’23 and A May ’22: a “Buddy System” app that connects new Alzheimer’s caregivers with experienced colleagues via a chat or video conferencing system to guide them through difficult situations;

2) Mary Gonzales ’23, Kate Rickwa ’24, and Kiren Grewal ’23: a mobile incontinence management app that connects to an ultrasonic bladder sensor on the patient that measures when patients need to go to the toilet and notifies the caregiver.

3) Reneh Flojo ’23 and Luciana Lang ’23: A mental health resource app that can monitor a caregiver’s stress levels and emotional state and connect them to a hotline or therapist for online sessions.

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