It’s usually the youth who are early adopters of cutting-edge technology, but virtual reality (VR) is being used to improve the lives of seniors all over the world.
It’s being used in trials to measure whether it can reduce feelings of loneliness, boost mental health and transport people to far-flung countries to evoke long-forgotten memories.
While VR was designed primarily for video games, its benefits have already far exceeded that original purpose.
In fact, people seem to be coming up with new ways to use the technology all the time; hospitals now use VR to train surgeons, architects design buildings with it and some directors are creating their films with the technology.
One study by Stanford University is being carried out in the Florida John Knox Village senior community to assess whether VR can improve the emotional wellbeing of older adults.
Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab will be working with John Knox’s 1200 residents, who will have ready access to the equipment under the supervision of staff members. The goal is to see whether virtual reality can improve their mood, strengthen their relationships with staff and make them more receptive to technology. Other senior communities in the United States and elsewhere will soon be added by the California university.
The residents can be transported into the International Space Station just by donning a 470-gram headset that produces video and sound. They instantly feel as though they are floating weightless with astronauts and have a 360-degree tour of the station.
If the residents prefer to keep their feet firmly on the ground though, they can choose to go to anywhere from Paris to Egypt; they can attend a sports event or choose a hike anywhere in the world.
VR works by immersing you in another world. The event or country you are visiting is mapped out to show exactly what you would see if you were truly there. It combines sound too. If you are watching Formula One, for example, the sounds of passing cars will be loudest when they are passing right in front of you and will fade the further away they get.
“There is a fair amount of previously published research by academic labs around the world that shows VR, when administered properly, can help reduce anxiety, improve mood, and reduce pain,” says Jeremy Bailenson, the Stanford lab’s founding director. “This particular study is focused on how using VR might reduce the residents’ feelings of isolation from the outside world – all the more important after the isolation we all faced during the pandemic.”
Chris Brickler, CEO of MyndVR, the Dallas company that provided the equipment, said volunteers will be screened to ensure they are mentally suitable for using virtual reality and each attendant has an abort button if the person becomes overwhelmed by the experience.
Read more: Can virtual reality treat dementia?
“As we age, we feel there is a disconnect sometimes that can happen when there is a lack of mobility,” says Mr Brickler. “We can’t travel as much as we want, we can’t connect with nature as much as we want, can’t have connections with animals. All sorts of connections get lost and our four walls start shrinking in. What we have tried to do is create a platform where we can bring the world back.”
Here are some recent examples of the ways immersive technology is having a positive impact on seniors.
People can visit places from their past
Tokyo researcher Kenta Toshima is using VR to help nursing home residents visit places from their pasts and tick off locations on their bucket lists.
The idea came to him while he was working in a care facility and an elderly patient expressed her wish to visit her favourite plum orchard.
Mr Toshima visited the orchard and used a 360-degree camera to create a beautiful view that the patient could explore with a VR headset.
“By supplementing their physical handicap with technology, the VR travel experiences can help improve the elderly’s motivation for rehabilitation and improve their quality of life. The VR experience makes them feel like they are out of the nursing home and can help ease their anxiety and loneliness,” says Mr Toshima.
Counteracting feelings of loneliness
While virtual reality experiences are usually done alone, running a program in a nursing home allows multiple patients to use the technology at once. Sharing their feelings and experience with those around them creates a sense of community that can counteract feelings of loneliness.
Mr Toshima shares some videos of seniors experiencing new and old places in VR, and they truly are heart-warming.
Seniors can see potential living facilities easily
Moving is a major life event at any age, and it’s even more significant for retirees.
More and more assisted living facilities are teaming up with VR companies to give seniors more independence when it comes to making housing decisions. Potential residents can tour the buildings, even if they haven’t physically been built yet, to see if they can envision themselves living there.
“We are removing the barrier of the unknown as people are able to see themselves in their new community and their new apartment. The tour has been met with great enthusiasm and excitement, defying stereotypes about older adults not being willing to embrace new technology. Our experience has been quite the opposite. The use of VR is mitigating anxiety because seniors are able to get an authentic and emotional feel for the atmosphere that typical renderings and 2D technology can’t offer,” says Adell Cuminale, Cloverwood senior marketing counsellor.
VR can help tackle social isolation
Studies have found that isolation and loneliness are worse for health than obesity or smoking, especially if you are over 50.
Read more: We need to talk about loneliness
With this in mind, AARP Innovation Labs built Alcove, a VR app that focuses on family and social connection.
Alcove bridges the physical distance between family members by offering a multiplayer option where family and friends all over the world can join. For example, a child can log on at the same time as an elderly parent living alone and sit with them and talk as though they are face to face.
Or they can choose to explore another country, or even another world, together.
What do you think of virtual reality? Are you willing to try it after reading the positive effects gleaned by these studies and surveys? Let us know how you feel in the comments section below.
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