Home » Virtual Reality Opens Up the Real World to Seniors – 1695 Words

Virtual Reality Opens Up the Real World to Seniors – 1695 Words

Like Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, many seniors have bucket lists of places they would like to visit. Unfortunately, lack of time or funds or physical problems prevents many of the elderly from traveling in the physical sense. However, read on to learn how virtual reality can provide access to worldwide travel for seniors who cannot explore the world in the flesh.

The Positive Outcomes of Virtual Reality

In the 1990s, University of Washington researchers created SnowWorld, an icy virtual environment that proved to reduce pain for burn victims. In more recent years, Dr. Albert Rizzo’s lab at the University of Southern California has helped veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder by exposing the vets to virtual environments. Furthermore, vets who are unable to travel to see veterans’ memorials physically can now visit them through a virtual reality program created by the Veterans United Foundation. And, researchers at the Chronic Pain Research Institute have tested a virtual meditative walk which enables users to manage pain and stress.

More than one hundred clinical research papers have now established that using virtual reality causes positive outcomes in people suffering from anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. All three of these symptoms are very common in older adults who have dementia.

How Virtual Reality Can Work for Seniors

Initial virtual reality projects mostly had younger users in mind. Younger users can quickly master new information, solve puzzles, play games, and move around. However, seniors are often wheelchair bound and have advanced dementia which does not allow them to read instructions or follow verbal commands. They are unable to cope with conventional virtual reality devices, where the user needs to swivel their head to enjoy a 360-degree view, to employ movements to cause the landscape to scroll, or to experience interactions with objects by tapping on them. These limitations have led to several start-up companies aiming to provide seniors with a way to overcome their physical limitations and travel the world virtually. Read on to learn about just two of these enterprises.


Rendever is a startup MIT company. Graduate students Dennis Lally and Reed Hayes tried out Rendever’s concept at a Brookdale senior living community where residents have been able to take a tour of the Tuscany countryside, visit the geysers of Yellowstone National Park, and scuba-dive to explore coral reefs, all without leaving the building. The majority of the exploration is accomplished via footage from Google Maps, although 360-degree films are also used.

“I feel for the people living inside these communities, that they don’t have enough stimulation,” Hayes said. “They need to have a sense of wonder about the world again, they need to be curious, they need to be exploring. And when you’re physically not able to do that by yourself, then virtual reality is a wonderful aid to provide that.”

A Virtual Reality Tour is Just Like Being There

While taking a virtual reality tour, seniors can ask questions and receive answers just as if they were on real-life guided trips. They can even get the chance to rejuvenate old memories by returning to their home states or countries and possibly recognizing the houses they used to live in. One resident, a chef, said that although he’s still able to travel physically, he was excited to virtually visit a restaurant in Berlin that he opened almost twenty years ago. The immersive nature of the virtual reality experience is very different from just looking at a photograph, and can generate powerful emotional moments that can be shared by everyone in the room.

One Caring Team

Another company at the forefront of providing virtual reality experiences for the elderly is One Caring Team, headed by Dr. Sonya Kim. One Caring’s first private client to try out Dr. Kim’s new virtual reality program is 103 years old. This senior has taken half a dozen virtual trips while sitting relaxed in her assisted-living facility in San Francisco. All it takes is a comfortable headset over the eyes to be on a beach in Hawaii at sunset gazing at a beautiful purple-red sky above a shimmering sea. A turn of the head provides pretty additional details of the Hawaiian scene – volcanic rock outcroppings, twists of driftwood, small grass shacks. The virtual images are accompanied by an audio introduction, unobtrusive texts, and music. Virtual visits to Hawaii have been followed by virtual trips to Venice and Africa and a fall-themed meditation experience watching leaves fall.

How Dr. Kim Found Her Way to Virtual Reality

A few years ago while running a house-call practice, Dr. Kim received a call for assistance from a woman whose 88-year-old mother was refusing to eat or drink. Because of this, the daughter had taken her mother on three trips to the ER in a month at a cost of over $50,000 in medical bills.

Because of her former emergency room experience, Kim was aware that seniors often wind up in the hospital with conditions that are entirely preventable – dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, malnutrition – all conditions that are brought on and exacerbated by a lack of self-care and loneliness. When Kim asked her patient why she’d stopped eating, the elderly woman replied:

“No one loves me. No one cares about me. I don’t matter anymore. Why should I eat, why should I drink, why should I live? I just want to die today.”

This experience was the impetus behind the founding of One Caring Team in 2014. Staff members of the company make regular phone calls to seniors living in their homes. They question each senior about basic subjects such as how they are feeling, whether they are taking their medications and keeping their medical appointments, but also encourage them to chat about what makes them feel good or what they could do to make someone else happy.

Falling in Love with Virtual Reality

Kim had read about virtual reality and was intrigued enough to attend an informal seminar on the subject where she tried on a headset and strolled through a virtual garden. As she put it she “totally fell in love” with the concept. Convinced that seniors would feel the same way, she gave a talk on the subject to a preventive care conference. At the conclusion of her presentation, directors of assisted-living facilities were enquiring about how much a virtual reality service would cost. Although this convinced her that such a service would sell, she first wanted to ensure that experiencing virtual reality would actually make seniors feel better.

Inspired by Hawaii

Dr. Kim named her first program Aloha VR because it was inspired by her experiences working in a Hawaiian emergency room. She found that she greatly admired Hawaii’s “Ohana spirit,” which includes respect for elders and love for extended family. Aloha VR is an example of what she is aiming for – an escape for seniors from endless television viewing into changes of scenery via a virtual experience. To quote Kim:

“Virtual reality allows them to forget their chronic pain, anxiety, the fact that they are alone,” and provides them with “a new care modality to bring to a senior care setting like this, to inspire them to live another day, where they’re happy.”

The environments of Aloha VR have no story-lines or puzzles, only beautiful Hawaiian scenery. Kim’s welcoming voice does remind her participants to stay healthy and take their medications. As she speaks, a short text emerges inside a little orange bubble that bursts pleasingly at the end. Versions for those with cognition impairments contain no words, just the sounds of the waves and music. “If there are too many words, if there are too many things we’re asking, they’re going to get frustrated,” explained Kim. Kim wants dementia patients, who often feel that they don’t belong anywhere and have been neglected by overwhelmed family members, to feel welcome and safe. Such patients often feel lost and confused about who they are and where they are. Providing them with a beautiful virtual reality beach can help them to feel found again.

Group Therapy Sessions

Kim also leads group therapy sessions at Bay Area assisted-living centers, where each person in a small group takes turns with the headsets. Participants having difficulties with verbal communication find other ways to communicate their enjoyment – blowing kisses, humming happily.

The Challenges

The company is still working on the challenges of providing a virtual reality experience for seniors. It’s often not just a matter of placing a headset on a senior’s head. Many of Kim’s clients need to stay seated throughout an entire video reality session with their heads cast down and their hands folded in their laps. Kim’s staff members often have to gently turn a client’s chin so that they can take in a side view.

Headsets tend to be heavy and currently cost about $850 each. The cost of the smartphone that it utilizes is extra, making it prohibitive to supply a headset for every single client. The company has initially created a few virtual environments to be used for demonstrations and plans to build more, but this will take more time and expense. To bridge the gap and to provide variety, the company purchases off-the-shelf programs. The company recently partnered with the Virtual World Society, a group dedicated to using virtual reality to promote social good. The group’s founder, Dr. Tom Furness, is now One Caring Team’s chief technology officer.

Conclusion – You Can Still Travel at Any Age

Upon arriving at a ripe old age, you may feel that you’ve seen everything. However, virtual reality is proving this not to be true and enabling seniors to go places they never dreamed they could see in their lifetimes.

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” – Saint Augustine

“Voyage, travel, and change of place impart vigor” – Seneca

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” – Jawaharal Nehru

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” — Pat Conroy

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