Innovation contest highlights VR, app-powered training for dementia caregivers

By Dave Muoio
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Virtual reality and mobile app-enabled caregiver screening were among the winners of the Caregiving for Dementia Innovation Challenge, a recently concluded contest run by AARP Services, Inc. (ASI) and UnitedHealthcare.

After receiving 254 contest entries, participants attended three in-person events run by design challenge company OpenIDEO in which they fine-tuned a product designed to support family caregivers of those with early-to-mid-stage dementia.
Among these, Embodied Labs’ Embodying a Person with Alzheimer’s in VR and YouthCare, a student caregiver training program designed by UCLA students, were chosen as the contest’s two winners.

“The ratio of caregivers to care recipients has, over time, gone down significantly, meaning that there’s going to be less family members to take care of their loved ones,” Sanjay Khurana, vice president of caregiving products and services at ASI, told MobiHealthNews. “Our hypothesis is that technology can step in and play a role in bending the curve on caregiving, to some extent. Now, we obviously cannot replace humans, but we believe in many cases technology can … improve affordability, improve access, or just provide resiliency to caregivers. We are betting on technology being a big game changer.”

Khurana said that judges selected the two winners based on their ability to meet four major criteria: ability to improve dementia caregiving quality, affordability, scalability, and the ease with which it could be integrated into caregivers’ lives.

Embodied Labs’ VR product was chosen for the contest’s “Most Viable Solution” category, worth $25,000. This offering was designed so that the wearer would experience a dementia patient’s gradual loss of memory, communication, spatial awareness, and other functions firsthand. Although initially designed as a B2B product, Khurana noted that the VR product could easily be developed and scaled for consumer use.

“Embodied Labs took a very different approach to just giving video-based training — they actually used VR to help the family and professional care givers live the life of the person they are caring for,” Khurana explained. “By doing so, there is a huge change in the mindset about emphasizing and also building the coping skills that they lack otherwise.”

YouthCare, winner of the $15,000 “Most Promising Solution” prize, is a caregiver training program supported by technology. Through a mobile app, the program automatically pairs student caregivers with seniors in need, alerts the caregivers of upcoming sessions at brick-and-mortar locations, offers respite and memory care training, and otherwise accelerates the caregiver screening process.

“Besides having a technology background, [YouthCare] was mobilizing an intergenerational workforce,” Khurana said. “That was important. It potentially creates career opportunities for students who want to get into the aging space, but it also deploys a workforce of students nationally — from a potential to create impact, it was actually better. We realize it’s a young company and [just] starting up, but it really had the roots of providing a respite service nationally.”

While Khurana said that these victories don’t constitute a full endorsement from the senior care organization, both winners will receive access to resources at ASI that will allow them to conduct usability studies or other concept testing. This kind of support, he said, could lead the two companies toward major relief for those who are the most affected by their loved one’s dementia.

“The enormity of this situation is sometimes lost; while the number of dementia patients is anywhere from 5 to 15 million in the US, the impact that it has on caregivers both financially and emotionally is understated,” Khurana said. “But what we have found is apart from cure and diagnosis, there is a still a lot that can be done. That’s what we were hoping to solve for: helping caregivers be more resilient to better training, giving them the tools to cope and manage, and connect with a socially isolated population.”