VR is a hit in nursing homes. is this a good thing

The eldercare industry is turning to virtual reality to combat low mood, memory loss and loneliness.

Collage of a person wearing a VR headset.
(By Najiba al-Ghadban for The Washington Post)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — On Wednesday mornings, residents of Citrus Place, a retirement community in this middle-class town, gather for a weekly facility: 30 minutes in virtual reality.

Participation is voluntary and attendance is encouraged. On this day, about a dozen participants from the facility's support wing sat in a circle on loveseats, wearing VR headsets that looked like large glasses. Their virtual schedule was busy: a balloon ride, then a safari, then the grocery store.

As the scenes unfolded, the participants laughed or held their breath. At one point, Debbie Townsend, 65, knocked over a nearby potted plant as she reached for a virtual apple – “Ouch!” she said.

scene at Citrus Place Senior Living, where residents can take virtual trips like hot air balloon rides, safaris and even grocery shopping. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

Citrus Place Wellness Program Director Maribel Echeverría watched from the sidelines.

“He never goes out for activities,” Echeverria said, nodding to the man in a wheelchair as he watched the virtual clouds float by. “But he loves it.”

The resident was in the U.S. Army, and VR is the closest they come to world travel these days, Echeverria added.

If VR companies are to be believed, this technology is a boon for young and old alike Video conferencing is fun and Concerts are less crowded. Customers, on the other hand, were lukewarm Far from it — Vendors will ship an estimated 2.9 million virtual reality devices in the United States in 2023, down from 3.4 million in 2022, according to market research firm IDC. But in hundreds of senior living facilities across America, VR is making inroads with a new audience: seniors.

that population is a prime candidate for VR's therapeutic and social benefits, advocates say. The technology is relatively intuitive, and some studies show it can help with memory loss, mood and loneliness. In the competitive senior care market, VR software is a selling point. (Rendever, one company developing VR for seniors, says it has more than 500 partner organizations.) And, at least for Citrus Place residents, VR is a hit.

“I've never been to Spain, I want to see something there.” Townsend said. “It's like traveling when you're not traveling.”

A social activity for patients and carers

Before the pandemic, one in four 50- to 80-year-olds reported feeling isolated from others. data from the University of Michigan. By June 2020 – at the peak of pandemic restrictions That percentage rose to 56 percent and now stands at 34 percent. Loneliness is a A major health risk In the elderly, factors such as mobility and hearing loss make things more difficult.

For Citrus Place residents, walking into the cafeteria is like showing up to a new high school on the first day: lots of faces and zero friends, Echeverria said. Caregivers try to bring quiet residents out of their shells and find opportunities to connect, such as a favorite song or a story from the past.

When Echeverria first heard that he and his co-workers would be implementing VR mode, he wasn't thrilled — would this new technology be a blessing for his co-workers or a burden?

But the residents' acceptance won him over, Echeverria said. People who were prone to self-isolation joined VR activities such as flight simulators and beach meditations. One woman, who didn't normally speak, began receiving visits from Echeverria's assistant — if she came with an earpiece.

Then there's the Maps feature – an image of Google Street View if you're actually standing on the street. Some residents wanted to travel to Japan, Echeverria said. Others wanted to visit their childhood homes. Once he took them on a virtual trip to his home on a nearby mountain. Why not?

Other virtual experiences from companies that serve seniors include a 10-part road trip on Route 66 and a hike around the Grand Canyon. Users can dive into the Venice canal or take a gondola ride. The experiences are varied and, with the subscription, endless: Rendever, the VR company working with Citrus Place, pushes new experiences to its system every week, it said.

2018 learning With the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab, it was shown that seniors who used Randver felt less depressed and isolated than a control group that watched TV. But the program wouldn't work without caregivers' time and patience, Echeverria said. So far, he says, it's worth the effort.

“Someone could be sitting there with a VR headset who's been very quiet or non-verbal most of the time and suddenly they're telling you something you didn't even know because of what they're seeing,” he said.

The future of VR in elder care is uncertain

in November learning From researchers at Stanford University, about half Older adults said that using VR with caregivers was “very or extremely” beneficial to their relationship. More than half of the survey participants said the same.

But as America's population ages, there is a labor shortage in elder care It gets worse, sometimes with disastrous results. Future caregivers may not have the time to guide residents through virtual experiences. But technology can still be helpful, said Mynd Immersive CEO Chris Brinkler: VR and chatbots can help engage residents when staff aren't around.

It can connect them with loved ones in faraway places, Brinkler said — imagine a grandmother and granddaughter hiking together on the rim of the Grand Canyon.

Will this “grandchild” be a non-player character – an invention of the game, not a real person?

Maybe someday, said Walter Greenleaf, a neuroscientist and medical technologist on Mynd Immersive's advisory board. If automated symbols have a positive effect on lonely people, scientists want to know.

Now, too often, older people just stop in front of the TV,” Greenleaf said. “It's using technology to solve their problems and entertain them in a way. But we can do much better. “

“Senior” — Brinkler's term for a shared virtual space designed specifically for seniors — isn't here yet. But VR proponents are looking at senior care, so it's important to set standards and boundaries now, said Kavya Perlman, founder of X Reality Safety Intelligence, an organization that advocates for safety and privacy in emerging technologies.

Along with studies showing the benefits of VR, researchers should also look for drawbacks, Perlman said.

“This industry is hell-bent on proving that their approach to technology works, and they're probably not looking at things that might be troubling,” he said.

VR healthcare companies need clear privacy policies, Perlman said. Now companies come to him asking how to protect their sensitive biometric data from marketers, law enforcement and the government. The industry also needs stricter standards for health care products, especially those intended for older people, who may not be able to appreciate privacy policies and withdraw consent, Perlman said.

As we measure the costs and benefits of VR for elder care, it's important to be realistic, said Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab and co-founder of VR training company Strivr.

“We don't support a world in which seniors wear glasses for hours at a time,” Bailenson said. “They put on the glasses, they have a lot of experience, and then they take off and they talk with their friends in the dining hall.”

Bailenson said that “seniors” are an extremely diverse group, and VR will only work for certain people in certain contexts. Caregivers at facilities like Citrus Place can use VR to connect with residents in short bursts. Geriatric physical therapists could see their field revolutionized with virtual sessions with engaging visuals and real-time biometric feedback, he said.

Meanwhile, Citrus Place resident Sherry Izzy, 72, will keep things going.

“Try something new,” he advised after pulling out his VR headset. “If you're frustrated with it, then move on. But let him go first.”