As virtual reality (VR) permeates the mainstream, an unlikely community is relishing in its myriad applications. Normally associated with gaming, Millennials and Gen Z, recent advancements in VR have allowed pioneering researchers and developers to assist and connect with older generations, especially those living in active senior communities, in their daily lives. In addition to helping keep older users alert and entertained, new VR applications extend further than many would perhaps believe.
Stephanie Sanborn, the Director of Innovation and Education at Seasons Retirement Communities, explains that there are many applications in which VR is increasingly used with seniors.
Below is a discussion of the primary ways seniors are increasingly benefitting from using VR to promote socialization and combat mobility issues, in addition to the research underway for the potential for VR to be used to treat mental illness
VR Assists in Mental & Physical Health
Given its interactive nature, VR inherently promotes movement amongst its users. Whether the headset has been programmed to allow users to visit a neighbourhood, explore a museum or gallery, take an ocean-side stroll (using a treadmill or other mobility device), exposing users to familiar places or foreign experiences makes the VR experience more immersive and ultimately more memorable and engaging than traditional outings or physical therapy exercises.
“It’s a great way to encourage exercise amongst seniors, which of course has a number of health benefits and promotes longevity,” says Sanborn.
VR has also been proven to train motor and cognitive skills. By immersing themselves in various VR applications, notably through 3D games designed to train multi-tasking abilities, seniors can work to improve their balance, gait and neural connections. Going further, VR also has a place within reminiscence therapy, which uses feelings of nostalgia as therapeutic tools. VR helps to make the experience of reliving a photograph or interacting with an object hyper-real, because it can evoke feelings of “being there”, providing a highly immersive nostalgic experience that triggers therapeutic memories.
VR Promotes Socializing
Socialization at any age is important to create a sense of purpose and belonging, increase self-esteem, and improve physical and mental health. Fortunately, all of these benefits work in conjunction to improve overall quality of life. Despite living in close quarters with other residents, many seniors may still find it difficult to socialize and create lasting bonds. Sometimes seniors can feel socially isolated as they grow older and are less mobile. VR can be used in group settings where residents are assembled and equipped with individual VR headsets and allowing them to experience the same program, promoting a sense of bonding over a shared experience. This then works to foster a sense of community by allowing participants to discuss what they experienced. VR can also be used for novel, personalized experiences, such as visiting a foreign city, which may evoke positive feelings.
VR and Chronic Pain
VR has proven to be an effective distraction from chronic pain, via chronic pain management and distraction therapy. By providing an escape into an immersive experience, VR can distract the brain from pain without the use of medication. Of course, this therapy is wholly dependent on the individual and their specific medical needs. However, not living with or concentrating on chronic pain can assist in promoting socialization and help seniors focus on other meaningful life events.
VR for Persons Living with Early Stages of Dementia
Seasons embarked on an in-house VR observational study for their residents with dementia living in the memory care area. In collaboration with a VR media company, four personalized experiences were developed. For example, a skiing experience was created for a former avid skier, while a dance experience was created for a former ballroom dancer. The study revealed that the residents who were in early stages of dementia seemed to respond extremely positively to the experience by exhibiting positive and joyful emotions.
VR for Supplemental Micro-Learning for Staff Education
There is another side to VR, which Sanborn discovered in a light-bulb moment while coordinating the VR observational study. Her revelation was to use VR not for the residents themselves, but rather as a supplemental learning tool for the staff and the residents’ family members. This application revolved around allowing staff and family members to experience first-hand what living with dementia is like and the care experience afforded by Seasons staff. Sanborn believes that this highly-visceral experience allowed both caregivers and family members to better understand the feelings and needs of those living with dementia, and that it evoked deep feelings of compassion and empathy that is simply not possible through online learning or training courses.
Of course, VR is not without its challenges. Headsets can be expensive and some seniors may experience difficulty or discomfort when using them. Traditional controllers may also prove difficult to maneuver for those with declining motor control. However, as the technology develops and advances, more affordable and ergonomic headsets and controllers, such as the new adaptive controllers, will follow, eliminating many barriers to entry. Given that senior populations are living longer; technology needs to increasingly be designed to meet their needs. Undoubtedly, VR is revolutionizing the healthcare and senior care industries in a way that is valuable, accessible and exciting.
Sanborn is confident that Seasons will continue to roll out innovative VR applications in the coming years, as the technology proliferates throughout society.
Learn more about how Seasons is trailblazing senior care within their active senior residences by visiting them in-person or online.