This new Technology Helps the Elderly Feel Young Again

How virtual reality allows the elderly to see the world from the comfort of home

This new Technology Helps the Elderly Feel Young Again | How virtual reality allows the elderly to see the world from the comfort of home

Virtual Reality (VR) is most often associated with the young and trending but recently many senior citizens have been taking advantage of this innovative technology to help them pay virtual visits to faraway destinations without needing to leave the comfort of their home. The therapeutic application of VR technology for seniors can reduce loneliness and isolation and help boost their spirits. 

The New York Times reports of of a nonagenarian, named Ms. Rayden and her 66-year-old son who recently paid virtual visits to Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway, the site of many happy family vacations, and to Rayden’s hometown of Cleveland. 

“I showed him where we played hopscotch and sledded in winter,” she explained. “It was important that he knew the home we had and the neighborhood. It was my childhood. It brought back wonderful memories,” Ms. Rayden told the NYT. 

Virtual reality: not just for gamers
According to the NY Post virtual reality works by enabling users to track what they hear and see with how they move their bodies. For example, during Ms. Rayden’s “outing” she could see the Cleveland streets from different angles simply by turning her head.

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Virtual reality often makes headlines for its gaming applications. Astronaut training centers, first responders and the military also utilize the technology for training. According to The NYT, some medical centers are now exploring VR’s therapeutic effect on trauma, chronic pain, and other medical conditions.

ABC Action News reports that about five years ago, Chris Brickler and his partner developed the idea of marketing VR to senior citizens. Their first challenge was adapting the technology previously designed for action, gaming, and high levels of stimulation, and making it “senior-friendly.” 

The NYT elaborates on the challenges. VR goggles can sometimes cause headaches or dizziness, especially when used in combination with some medicines. Additionally, senior citizens are less likely to be computer literate,  human-computer interaction researcher at the University of Maryland, Amanda Lazar told the New York Times. 

“To participate in VR therapy, you have to strap on a headset that covers your eyes and blocks all light, but for the 3-D world you enter.” Lazar said “For some older people who didn’t grow up with computers, such immersive technology can be overwhelming,”

Brickler told ABC Action News about the steps that MyndVR, the company he co-founded, has taken to market VR to seniors, "We've essentially reimagined VR away from this youth-based gaming culture to a very safe, secure, and senior-friendly platform."

And Michelle Abrahante, the executive director of the Tampa-based Sodalis Assisted Living Center, told ABC Action News that the platform appears to be working. She reported that initially residents were nervous to try the new technology, but a few months later, most were embracing it.

Virtual reality targets isolation
Social isolation for senior citizens is a real problem according to Texas Monthly. Seniors who feel isolated have a greater risk of health problems.  Can MyndVR’s virtual trips to Broadway and Paris mitigate feelings of loneliness?

Virgil Pittisinger, a 72-year-old resident at Sodalis is one of the residents whose life was transformed by VR. He shared why he plans to hang onto the goggles. Despite being in a senior center, "you can still do things by looking through the goggles and seeing another world," told Texas Monthly.

Andrew Tate, the director of emerging technology at the University of Texas at Dallas’s Center for Brain Health thinks it’s a solution worth exploring.Any activity that promotes curiosity, critical thinking, and meaningful social engagement is good for the brain’s health and fitness.” Tate explained to Texas Monthly, “Virtual reality’s ability to give users a sense of presence by stimulating the visual, auditory, and vestibular systems allows them to experience new and remembered—or forgotten—experiences like never before.”

According to ABC Action News, the COVID-19 pandemic offered the opportunity to test VR’s impact on isolation, as senior citizen centers endured lockdowns for the residents’ safety.

Brickler shared, "We're just super excited about providing this service to so many older people that are, you know, sometimes lonely, combating isolation, certainly with a pandemic. That's been a big problem, but we also provide a lot of joy that helps with some of the depression and anxiety that exists in senior living."

Reminiscence therapy
In addition to providing meaningful stimulation, and limiting loneliness for seniors, VR may become a tool for reminiscence therapy. Reminiscence therapy is an age old practice intended to bring joy and meaning to seniors by helping them engage with their memories. Some therapists tout reminiscence therapy’s comforting effect on those with dementia or short-term memory loss. 

Traditionally, old wedding videos, favorite childhood foods, photographs, and songs were tools of reminiscence therapy. Now, researchers are exploring how VR can help seniors connect in a tactile way with their pasts. A 2021 study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology found VR to be an effective tool for reminiscence therapy. Other studies have shown similar benefits.

Senior citizens are reporting on how much joy they get from engaging with the technology, Texas Monthly reports. After “scuba diving” in VR from the comfort of her senior community’s ballroom, 90-year-old, Sali Fonda shared, “When you’re ninety, your life is over. This is going to make life new again.”

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