Building Empathy in Dementia Care with Virtual Reality Simulation

Building Empathy in Dementia Care with Virtual Reality Simulation



An immersive theatrical virtual reality experience in which two people interact in the same digital space. One person is an actor who plays the role of caregiver, while the other is a volunteer whose experiences mimic. Though the VR project doesn’t necessarily capture what it feels like to have dementia, it presents the user with experiences that may induce confusion, anxiety and reduced concentration — symptoms common in people living with dementia.

Project Team

Faculty and Staff
Maria Palazzi, ACCAD, Department of Design
Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, College of Social Work
Ian E. Murphy, College of Social Work
Vita Berezina-Blackburn, ACCAD
Alex Oliszewski, ACCAD, Department of Theatre
Jeremy Patterson, VR developer
Daniel Montour, Actor

Graduate Students
Dreama Cleaver, MFA, Department of Design/ACCAD
Victoria Campbell, MFA Candidate, Department of Design/ACCAD

“When you progressively experience the lack of control over your environment, you start reacting in a way in which you begin to relate to people living with dementia.” Berezina-Blackburn said. “Users in the experience get frustrated or anxious or withdrawn, and it’s a completely understandable human reaction. That ability to somewhat demystify that aspect of dementia and make it more understandable and human, ... that feels really powerful.”

Dementtia experience


  1. Immerse practitioners in the VR Experience of Dementia (VR-ED) system as a form of clinical empathy building;
  2. Develop a practitioner based workshop module for the existing VR-ED system customized to the needs of empathy training for Medicaid serving physicians, residents and fellows;
  3. Adapt our foundational body tracking system to a consumer-grade system making the existing VR-ED system both affordable and transportable for in facility training.


  • Despite evidence that expressions of empathy by healthcare practitioners have a positive impact on patient outcomes, there is variability of expression of empathy among health care providers (Howick, Steinkopf, Ulyte, Roberts & Meissner, 2017).
  • Patients living with dementia present multiple challenges for healthcare practitioners due to complex medical, behavioral and psychological care needs.
  • With 5.7 million individuals living with dementia in the U.S. and this number is expected to grow exponentially, as the total number of older adults continues to rise, there will be increased demands on physicians as they care for these patients.
  • Perspective-taking in VR has been shown to reduce negative stereotyping and increase empathy for individuals immersed in simulated interactions.

This project was supported by a grant from the Medicaid Equity Simulation Project SFY 2018 & 2019, Ohio Department of Medicaid.

The content of this site is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Ohio Department of Medicaid.

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