The Wayback project recreates coronation day in 1953 on 3D film using actors, period costumes and props, right down to fish-paste sandwiches. The effect is to bring back vivid memories for those struggling with the present.
In a comfortable armchair, glass of sherry at her side, Elspeth Ford is getting to grips with her 3D goggles. â€œMaybe Iâ€™ll go another other way now,â€ she says, looking left, right, up, down. She breaks into a cheery rendition of the Lambeth Walk.
Elspeth, 79, is a resident at Langham Court, a dementia care home in Surrey, and today she is trialling a virtual reality project, Wayback, that has been designed especially for those living with dementia. Peering into her headset, Elspeth is temporarily transported to 2 June 1953, and a street party for the Queenâ€™s coronation. She is enjoying a childrenâ€™s fancy-dress competition. â€œI love that boy dressed as an Oxo cube,â€ she laughs.
This is the first in what will become a series of virtual reality films set at historic moments, and available free for those with dementia, their families and carers to enjoy together through a mobile phone and a pair of inexpensive 3D goggles. The idea was developed by three advertising creatives with family experience of dementia. For Camilla Ford, Elspethâ€™s daughter, it is an exciting concept. â€œIt gave Mum a huge amount of pleasure and really engaged her,â€ she says. Anxiety â€“ â€œabout what she is meant to be doingâ€ â€“ often stops Elspeth getting involved in activities. â€œDementia is debilitating in so many ways; you always need creative ways to give positive experiences. She was immersed in this and it took her back to a time of happy memories, when she was productive and emotionally fulfilled.â€
Elspeth has had vascular dementia for seven years, and finding a point of contact increasingly involves moving to where she is, rather than trying to bring her into the present, says Camilla. â€œIf she is in a place she can identify with, and we can see it too, we are somehow equalised. We are at a stage where we arenâ€™t trying to create memories but to relish positive emotions, dropping the expectation of who Mum was and just being with the person in front of us.â€
Elspeth sets off for lunch with her son Dominic, still smiling. It is unlikely, says Camilla, that her mother will remember what has made her feel happy. â€œThe point is that she feels uplifted, not necessarily that she knows why.â€
Dan Cole, one of Waybackâ€™s creators, agrees. â€œIf the film can open some memories, start a conversation or bring a smile, thatâ€™s a success,â€ he says. The idea began to form after a drive around Camden, north London, with his father, then in the early stages of Alzheimerâ€™s. â€œIt was his old stomping ground and he kept recognising places and telling me little tales; the pub his dad drank in, where he hung about with his mates, even an alley where he once got into a scrap,â€ says Dan. â€œIn that fleeting moment it was so clear in his mind. I could ask questions. He could tell me things.â€
The effects on his fatherâ€™s mood, and on Danâ€™s sense of connection with him, lasted longer. â€œIt was the idea you could move forward by going back, maybe use those memories as a starting point for a shared experience.â€ The resulting film was made over two days in a north-London street (satellite dishes and other modern trappings digitally removed) with a volunteer cast and crew of 187 and painstakingly sourced period props, costumes and menu (fish-paste sandwiches, notes one Langham Court resident approvingly). Danâ€™s father, who died three years ago, is among the dedications at the end. The music â€“ beyond the Lambeth Walk â€“ is by Frankie Laine and Guy Mitchell. â€œMy dadâ€™s favourites,â€ says Dan.
Married couple Ronald and Anne Graham-Clarke are watching the film together. â€œOh, this is fun. I feel as if Iâ€™m at the party,â€ says Ronald, 89. Both he and Anne, 84, are chuckling. She taps her foot to the music. Afterwards, Anne tells Sarah Hoare, one of Langham Courtâ€™s directors, about watching the coronation at home in Scotland with her parents and sister. â€œMy family bought a TV for the first time to watch it. It was my parentsâ€™ wedding anniversary too. It was a great party.â€
Anneâ€™s response, says Hoare, is a wonderful example of virtual realityâ€™s potential. â€œShe completely came out ofÂ herself because she was relaxed and enjoying herself. I have never actually seen her laugh before.â€
Langham Courtâ€™s philosophy is based on the Butterfly Household model, devised by Dr David Sheard, a dementia specialist and CEO of Dementia Care Matters, who is supporting Wayback. â€œPeople living with dementia become more feeling beings than thinking beings,â€ he says. â€œFeelings endure and are more to be trusted when facts diminish.â€ Facilitating a trip back in time â€“ â€œto their undamaged longer-term memoriesâ€ â€“can, he says, unlock the happy emotions that accompany them. â€œWayback offers the opportunity to live in the moment, to go back in time and to just â€˜beâ€™ again and to feel validated.â€
Reminiscence, using music, photographs, props and role play for instance, is a well-established model of dementia care. Virtual reality, Sheard believes, could provide a useful tool alongside this.
â€œThe biggest risk to someone living with dementia is to lose self-esteem, to feel not connected. Years ago, it was thought to be ethical to remind people of the facts, but how do you put back what is gone from a personâ€™s brain? Eventually activities that tax the brain and short-term memory create stress and ill being.â€
The best measure of dementia care, Sheard believes, is wellbeing. â€œDementia takes people back to the past as a way to make sense of the now. The feelings generated by an experience can stay for a very long time afterwards.â€
Daphne Padfield, 93, is taking her turn with the goggles. â€œI felt I was really there,â€ she exclaims, when the film finishes. Did she attend a street party for the coronation, asks Hoare. Daphneâ€™s detailed response is a surprise. â€œI was actually there,â€ she says. â€œMy mother, sisters and I had seats on a very good stand. We all had new dresses. They were all dying to tell her about it when we got back to school.â€ Daphne happily recounts her experiences of the day forÂ some time. â€œIt was such a thrill. IÂ shall never forget,â€ she says, rather poignantly. â€œIt is forever imprinted inÂ my memory.â€
To watch the film in full VR, search for The Wayback VR on YouTubeâ€™s mobile app. The Wayback App is coming soon. For more information please visit thewaybackvr.com
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