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Virtual Reality Opens the Door to New Worlds

Older Americans can explore the globe — and their memories — through a headset

Group of people using virtual reality glasses

Courtesy of Rendever

When Ann Ellen Rutherford put on the headset, she suddenly found herself in Paris. The 75-year-old, a resident at Maplewood Senior Living in Weston, Mass., stepped into the Louvre museum, which she had visited years ago. As she turned her head, she took in the scenery and the priceless art surrounding her.

“It hadn’t changed,” Rutherford said. After a few minutes of exploration, she asked the activity director at her adult community if she could travel to Italy to revisit Venice, one of her favorite cities. With a few clicks on a computer pad, she had arrived.

And while this trip didn’t involve a passport, it still felt like a journey, she said. “Sometimes I get frustrated that I can’t travel. But I’m happy I can go back and see beautiful things.”

Rutherford was experiencing virtual reality (VR), an interactive, three-dimensional immersive computer experience that's typically viewed through goggles. The technology, which first found popularity with video-gaming millennials, is now wowing older Americans, health care professionals and caregivers.

Increasingly, adult communities are using VR for enrichment and to help trigger positive memories for patients with dementia, who can use programs like Google Street View to revisit their childhood neighborhoods. It’s also aiding patients with macular degeneration and helping train medical professionals, letting them step into their patient’s shoes to experience how diseases alter how they perceive the world.

Perhaps most importantly, it can help reduce social isolation and depression, said Kyle Rand, CEO of Rendever, the company that provided the VR experience used at Rutherford’s senior living community.

He said that VR can be transformational. “You can put it on the person you’re caring for, and you can let them do anything and go anywhere. All of a sudden, life is much more than the four walls around you.”

You forget you have a headset on. You feel like you’re really there.

— Arleen Mikulski, 80

So far, the technology has been marketed to adult communities and agencies. In Ontario, Canada, the Milton Public Library has even partnered with local senior homes to offer the service. Rendever and other VR companies said they are working to find ways to make VR affordable for consumers by next year.

Meanwhile, it’s possible to try the technology on your own, simply by searching YouTube for “360 VR” and viewing videos through a low-cost headset that works with a cellphone. Of course, the content quality can vary greatly. And like many technologies, it can be glitchy and frustrating to patients and caregivers who are trying it out for the first time.

But the upside is tremendous, said Molly Fogel, director of educational and social services for the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. It’s particularly valuable for reminiscence therapy, which uses recollections to increase psychological well-being. “It can bring joy, helping a person engage in the memories they can still access.”

One of the most powerful tools is Google Street View. Using the free program, a caregiver can enter practically any address on the planet and bring up a photo of the residence on a screen.

One dementia patient, a professor who grew up in Sweden, was able to virtually visit her old university in Stockholm, exploring the campus and pointing to buildings where she once taught classes, recalled Brian Geyser, vice president of Clinical Innovation & Population Health at Maplewood, which uses Rendever’s services in the company’s 14 communities. “It opened up a flood of memories. She began speaking in her native language.”

And weeks later, even those with short-term memory problems may recall the VR experience, he said.

Other popular experiences involve animals, travel and interactive adventures, said Chris Brickler, CEO of MyndVR. As the company was developing its product, researchers spoke to several hundred older people about the content they wanted to experience. The results surprised Brickler. “We never ever thought we would see 85-year-old women wanting to skydive above the Alps in Switzerland. We also saw this enormous connection with nature and pets and wildlife.”

Based on the feedback, the company has produced VR films set in farm fields, and it also offers a monthly series that visits sites along old Route 66. It even hired actors to recreate a scene in a 1950s-era nightclub, where entertainers sang Frank Sinatra songs.

All the work pays off, said Arleen Mikulski, 80, who lives at Villa Valencia, a home for senior citizens in Laguna Hills, Calif. She’s still amazed about her first VR experience: a trip to Jakarta, Indonesia. “You’re looking up, you’re looking down. You forget you have a headset on. You feel like you’re really there.”

Woman wearing virtual reality glasses

Courtesy of MyndVR

VR helps medical professionals understand life with dementia

Virtual reality isn’t all about vacations and adventures. It can also take users to someplace deadly serious: the mind of a person with dementia. VR firm Embodied Labs has created a 27-minute experience depicting what life is like for a patient with the debilitating disease. It’s being used by students, medical professionals and caregivers.

In addition, the Alzheimer's Foundation of America is working on a similar project that it soon plans to share with affiliates.

The Embodied Labs experience puts viewers in the mind and body of Beatriz, a middle-aged woman with Alzheimer’s disease. Through the headset, the film reveals Beatriz’s life with dementia, including her internal dialogue. Viewers share her confusion at not recognizing family members, as well as learn how care providers can inadvertently insult patients when they treat them like children.

“The experience is powerful,” said Marilyn R. Gugliucci, the director for geriatrics education and research at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Biddeford, Maine. She said initial research has shown that the VR training evokes empathy in medical students. “One gets a sense of how it feels to have dementia. People can talk to you about what it is like, but until you can experience it on a personal level, you don’t understand what they mean.”

Linda Jacobson, an elder care advocate in the San Francisco Bay Area who now works as a consultant for Embodied Labs, said the experience gives caregivers a window into their patient’s lives. “I’ve seen caregivers come out of this simulation weeping, just weeping."

The firm also has produced VR labs depicting life with macular degeneration and hearing loss, as well as one focused on a person with a terminal illness who is experiencing end-of-life discussions. In addition, the company is now producing a VR film on Lewy body dementia.

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