GRAND RAPIDS — A Grand Valley State University faculty member received a National Institutes of Health grant to continue researching how patients with Alzheimer’s disease use visual cues to navigate their living areas.

Rebecca Davis, associate professor of nursing, received a $316,073 grant to conduct a study with area senior citizens using virtual reality to see how they find their way to a destination.

Davis said many retirement and continuing care facilities have nondescript and confusing interiors, making it difficult for some residents to remember how to get back to their rooms.

“It’s a serious problem in some homes; some buildings have hallways that are one-third of a mile long,” Davis said. “Our studies have found that older people do well with cues, which are common and familiar objects placed in the hallways.”

During the study, which will likely begin in the winter, participants will wear eye-tracking glasses and mentally walk through a virtual reality environment projected on a 12-foot screen. One destination will be marked with colorful cues, another will not.

“The eye-tracking glasses have a camera in them, so we’ll be able to tell what people are looking at, and how they respond to cues or lack of cues,” she said.

Davis said some care facilities place “memory boxes” of personal items outside a patient’s door.

“But you have to know how to get back to your door,” she said. “We want people to feel comfortable in their home and familiar with its surroundings.”

For the study, Davis plans to recruit 40 people who are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and 40 people over age 61 who do not have the disease. She is working closely with Cindy Beel-Bates, GVSU associate professor of nursing, who is an expert in dementia, and Dr. Kevin Foley, medical director for Saint Mary’s Alzheimer’s disease and memory disorder program. Staff at the University of Michigan Virtual Reality Lab worked with Davis to create the computer program.

People who would like to participate in the study can call Davis at (616) 331-3079.

This project follows an initial study that Davis led five years ago, funded by the John A. Hartford Foundation, which found visual cues to be effective in helping senior citizens navigate their environments.


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