Avatar to transform dementia care training

An avatar called Jim is redefining the way health professionals are trained to communicate with people living with dementia.

For the 413,106 people currently living with dementia in Australia, communication difficulties represent one of the most prominent, intimate and distressing symptoms. 

Because of this, communication and empathy skills are crucial for community health professionals and family members when interacting with and caring for people with dementia. 

Making meaningful communication training available for carers and family members is increasingly difficult. Classroom-based theoretical training methods are often ineffective, whilst clinical placement opportunities are limited and expensive to deliver.

New virtual learning environments (VLEs), designed by a team of researchers from the School of Psychology and Speech Pathology at Curtin University, are helping to fill the current gaps in skills-based communication education and overcome cost and availability issues. 

These virtual environments offer realistic, cost-effective, evidence-based training solutions where health and aged care trainees can develop and practice communication facilitation techniques in a safe and confidential environment.

The Empathy Simulator is an Dementia Australia Dementia Research Foundation (AADRF) funded virtual solution currently being delivered to carers and family members to develop empathy and communication skills. 

The two realistic avatars developed for this digital platform are Jim, an elderly Australian farmer with mild dementia and his wife Moira. 

The Empathy Simulator was created by Dr Janet Beilby in partnership with a technology and design team from Citrine Technologies in Atlanta, Georgia. 

The VLE was built with the Unity Game Engine, an advanced state of the art virtual reality development software platform that supports full 3D graphic rendering, physics and a wide variety of interaction device options. 

The VLE software is operated on a standard laptop computer and is HDMI-connected to a secondary large screen for viewing the virtual patient in life-size.

The virtual patient’s verbal and non-verbal responses are then operated by the trainer behind a one-way mirror in an observation room via laptop. 

Dr Beilby indicated that due to time pressures and resource limitations there is a tendency for health professionals and care workers to become very task focused and forget basic relational aspects of care.

“That is, the importance of taking time to simply ‘be’ with the person and connect on a more humanistic level, responding to emotional needs and knowing them as a person. Empathy is critical to this and essential when caring for people with dementia,” Dr Beilby said. 

“Interacting with Jim, seeing his distress in response to his communication challenges, loss of independence and concern about his family, certainly reminds us of the person within and how important empathy and basic connection are. 

“We believe that the avatars Jim and his wife Moira can be used to help health professionals and dementia care workers to really understand the importance of empathic communication and to develop their use of enabling more person-centred communication techniques.”

Dr Beilby said the aged care workers who have interacted with Jim perceived the VLE to be authentic and to simulate real-world interactions with people with dementia, having direct relevance for their roles.
“Some of the participants actively reached out to the screen to touch and comfort Jim, which shows that a real connection was formed,” she said.

“The participants valued practicing sensitive and effective responses to Jim and welcomed the opportunity to reflect on their own communication style and to receive personalised feedback on their communication style – something none of the participants had received before.”

Dr Beilby said that all of this would not have been possible without the 2014 AADRF-Victoria Project Award.

“Using the funding we have gathered feasibility data which has informed a new study underway with Dementia Australia Victoria, where the VLE will be trialled with a larger group of home and community care workers in a small group setting,” Dr Beilby said.

“We would love to see this sort of training becoming available, even mandatory, for all dementia care workers and we welcome any opportunity to talk with organisations interested in accessing this technology.

“The next developments for Jim will include artificial intelligence, voice recognition software and having Jim placed in a virtual hospital bed to help students learn how to prepare for and conduct bedside assessments. We see endless opportunities for the application and use of Jim to transform practice.” 

For more information on the Virtual Training Solutions click here or to get involved contact Dr Janet Beilby at [email protected].

The Empathy Simulator was supported by an Dementia Australia Dementia Research Foundation – Victoria Project Award. It represents the work of a team from Curtin University including Dr Janet Beilby (Project Leader) and Dr Jade Cartwright (Co-investigator and Project Manager), Dr Shelley Brundage (George Washington University – Co-investigator), Dr Josh Spitalnick (Citrine Technologies CEO/President VLE Design and Research Partner) and Ms Ann-Marie Haygarth (Research Assistant).