A unique virtual-reality (VR) program to be developed at Western has received a $1-million innovation grant from Future Skills Centre, aiming to provide personal support workers (PSWs) access to innovative communication training to help care for people living with dementia.
The simulation program will help PSWs communicate and interact with Nala and James, two lifelike avatars representing people in their mid-70s in the middle stages of dementia.
“We chose to develop this with PSWs because they’re the people who often provide the most hands-on care, and they’re often the people who are most forgotten when it comes to innovation that can help them in their work. They want the training and often don’t get access to it,” said Marie Y. Savundranayagam, professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences and leader of the project.
Called Be EPIC VR, the training program will be “highly interactive, and highly personalized” in its approach and in its evaluation, Savundranayagam said.
Nala’s and James’s responses to the PSWs’ comments and questions will be guided by artificial intelligence to make the avatars’ part of the dialogue as authentic and seemingly improvisational as possible.
Standard PSW training addresses many how-to skills, such as techniques for feeding, bathing and transferring patients from their beds or chairs. The list of duties for each visit can be so long and time-consuming that there can be a tendency to be more task-focused than person-focused.
Yet caregiving is even more complex with people living with dementia, who often have complex communication impairment and behaviours – paradoxically, with a higher need for meaningful social interaction that might not be addressed in conventional PSW training.
“This is about inclusivity on all fronts, including the needs of the PSW and the person living with dementia,” said Savundranayagam, who is also director of the Sam Katz Community Health and Aging Research Unit at Western.
Future Skills Centre is a federal consortium of public and private partners aiming to help Canadians gain the skills they need to thrive in a changing labour market. On Thursday, the organization announced 13 projects would receive funding to create and offer rapid training for in-demand skills in health care, construction and information technology.
The organization provided an initial $419,000 for the first phase of Be EPIC, and has now added another $1 million to develop the VR component.
The virtual training is a high-tech outgrowth of an existing 10-hour post-certification skills-upgrading program developed at Western, in which actors play the roles of people living with dementia while PSWs improve their strategies and skills in effective communication.
“We emphasize the importance of person-centred care. For example, there are two ways of helping someone get ready for the day. You can walk into the room, pull the covers off and say, ‘It’s time to get going – we need to get ourselves cleaned up, dressed and fed.’ Or you can greet them, ‘Good morning, James, my name is Marie [and wait for a response from James]. I’m your caregiver, and I’m here to help you get ready for the day [and wait for a response from James], How do you feel this morning?’
“In person-centred care, you still get the tasks done – and maybe you even get them done more effectively because it’s done in the context of a person’s history: what they like, what they don’t like, or maybe who they like and who they don’t like. It’s looking around the room and seeing photos of family or events or mementos to understand who and what is important to them.”
The success of the in-person Be EPIC training prompted Savundranayagam and her team to explore how to expand it to other locations. And while conventional online video-training platforms can be useful, a 3D interactive experience is much richer than an online training module could be, she said.
The VR technology is being developed by Motive.io, a Vancouver-based firm that specializes in creating VR training content for employers in scenarios such as mining safety, operating-room protocols, and underground utility locates.
They’re creating simulated bedrooms and using hundreds of speech samples to develop conversational modules, using artificial intelligence, that will fit a range of scenarios that could arise during the training and in real life.
“Our ultimate goal is to deploy this remotely. We’re not expanding to VR because we think it’s cool; we’re expanding because it has potential to reach more people more effectively, to help people more inclusively, without being limited by geography,” Savundranayagam said.