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Santa Clara students and faculty are well on their way to designing and commercializing a virtual reality training program for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia caregivers.

Santa Clara students and faculty are well on their way to designing and commercializing a virtual reality training program for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia caregivers.

Emma Cepukenas ’23 remembers when his great-grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and the unnerving role that came with caring for a loved one with memory loss.

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

Santa Clara’s undergraduate story echoes that of the approximately 15 million Americans, mostly unpaid family, friends and others, who help those with dementia or Alzheimers. Yet few of these caregivers are ever counseled or trained to help them deal with the staggering responsibility that awaits them.

For these second invisible patients, as they are often called, life becomes an exhausting and emotional rollercoaster as they juggle their own tasks and worries with the stress of caregiving.

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

Benefiting from a grant of $125,000 from the Richard and Maude Ferry Foundation in Seattle, and overseen by their grandson Quentin Orem ’11SCU students and faculty in public health, engineering, computer science, theater arts, marketing, and communications are gearing up to tackle the project, which could be market-ready in 2024.

Healthcare innovation, from start to finish

“It’s a huge validation of what we’re hoping to do with the BioInnovation and Design Labbecause we want to be involved in all stages of healthcare innovation,” says Prashant Asuriwho runs the lab and leads the effort with a colleague Julia Scott, a senior researcher in the lab whose studies focus on brain health and brain aging.

“It’s the first time we’ve done something from start to finish, from ideation to prototyping, to commercialization,” says Asuri, an associate professor of bioengineering.

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

Scott and Asuri say the name hasn’t been named yet the product is inspired by a current virtual reality (VR) application which allows someone to experience the world through the eyes of people with dementia. The lab approach will place the user in the shoes of a caregiver rather than the patient. This type of training can give caregivers skills and ideas to help them deal with difficult aspects of caregiving, such as de-escalating agitation, redirecting repetitive thoughts, and calming a person’s confusion. among other behavioral challenges.

“It can be so difficult to deal with all of this on your own,” says Scott, who has cared for close relatives with dementia.

The Cepukenas VR Training Program Team, Kennedy Anderson ’24, and Leslie Catano ’22 found that nearly all available dementia care training did not use virtual reality and most learning methods were passive.


Leslie Cataño (left) and Kennedy Anderson chat with panel members.


Passing the baton from one team to another

Scott describes the product as a virtual environment simulating typical healthcare environments, in which challenging scenarios can be played out. Achieving this requires collaboration between subject matter experts in dementia care from Santa Clara public health science majors and screenwriters from communications or theater arts departments.

Photorealistic situations will ask caregivers how they dealing with particular behaviors; for example, how best to deal with a person with dementia who is obsessed with going to the store.

“In their head,” Scott says of people with memory loss, “they want to go out and go to the store, but of course they can’t do it on their own anymore.” The VR training program, she explains, can show caregivers how to defuse this situation by guiding them through a step-by-step process.

“They’re asked to make a decision, and the consequences of that choice will be played out, and they’ll be able to see it,” says Scott, adding that pop-ups will appear in the VR program asking caregivers what they should do next.

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

Anderson, whose grandfather and godmother live with memory loss, has used virtual reality before and thinks the experience will translate well for caregivers.

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

“Do Something Meaningful”

For Catano, graduated this summer, being part of the VR training team was “an opportunity to do something meaningful”. Along the way, it also taught her important skills she can use in a future career in health statistics, including honing her research skills, writing succinctly about a complicated topic, and giving a public presentation. like she did in Seattle.

The design sprint was practically a 24-hour masterclass in itself, according to the students. Each team presented its initial pitch in front of a panel of nine actors and experts in the field. After receiving feedback from the panel, the teams visited local nursing homes and a nursing school where they met with a faculty member gerontology nurse practitioner to gather more information.


Students from Santa Clara to Seattle, where they pitched their ideas for Maude's Ventures @ SCU.

Students from Santa Clara to Seattle, where they pitched their ideas for Maude’s Ventures @ SCU.


With advice from stakeholders and insights they picked up during their on-site visits – for the VR team, which included ensuring their digital VR stories represent people from different backgrounds and ethnicities – the teams returned to the UW Memory Hub where they reworked their ideas and slides before taking a second round of throwing this afternoon.

“It was a bit nerve-wracking,” recalls Cataño of the 30 minutes given to each team to redo their pitch. “It wasn’t something we had time to practice, but I think it went well, and it really taught me to have confidence in myself.” It’s a sentiment that Asuri and Scott believe is shared by members of all four teams.

Starting this fall until 2024, the VR project will enter the research and development phase where engineering and computer science majors and related faculty members will be recruited for their technical and design input. Asuri and Scott also hope to engage business majors when it comes time to manufacture and market the product. Every six months, the project team will report to the Ferry Foundation Board on the established benchmarks.

Finalist ideas explored

Asuri describes the four teams that participated in the ideation portion of phase one of the project “four different champions of four big ideas”. The three finalist ideas, he adds, will be refined and evaluated by SCU faculty for potential development as senior engineering design projects or independent study projects. Pitch ideas and teams include:

1) McKenzie Himes ’23 and A Mai ’22: a “buddy system” application that connects novice Alzheimer carers with experienced counterparts via a chat system or a videoconference system, to support them in difficult situations;

2) Maria Gonzales ’23, Kate Rickwa ’24, and Kiren Grewal ’23: an incontinence management mobile app that connects to an ultrasound bladder sensor on the patient that assesses when patients should use the bathroom and notifies the caregiver.

3) Reneh Flojo ’23 and Luciana Slow ’23: a mental health resource app that can monitor a caregiver’s stress levels and emotional state, and link them to a helpline or therapist for online sessions.

Additional donations through Santa Clara University Memory and Brain Care Fundsays Asuri, can support student and faculty research and fuel the product development pipeline for finalist ideas.

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