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VR Providing Great Experiences and Memories for Seniors

‘Soaring’ over hills or ‘playing’ with puppies, study finds seniors enjoy virtual reality

Retired Army Col. Farrell Patrick taught computer science at West Point during the 1970s and then at two private universities through the 1990s, so he isn’t surprised by the progress technology has made over the decades.  But when the 91-year-old got his first virtual reality experience recently, he was impressed. Sitting in a conference room at John Knox Village, a suburban Fort Lauderdale, Florida, retirement community, Patrick sat up straight as his eyes and ears experienced what it would be like to be in a Navy fighter jet flying off the Florida coast.

John Knox Village was one of 17 senior communities around the country that participated in a recently published Stanford University study that found that large majorities of 245 participants between 65 and 103 years old enjoyed virtual reality that improved their emotions and their interactions with staff.  During the testing, seniors picked from seven-minute virtual experiences such as parachuting, riding in a tank, watching stage performances, playing with puppies and kittens or visiting places like Paris or Egypt. The participants wore headsets that gave them 360-degree views and sounds, making it seem like they had been all but dropped into the actual experience. “It brought back memories of my travels and … brought back memories of my experience growing up on a farm,” said Terry Colli, a former public relations director at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., of his 2022 experience. Colli, 76, liked swiveling in a chair to get a panoramic view. “That was amazing.”  Anne Selby, a 79-year-old retired counselor and artist, found VR “stimulated virtually every area of my brain, all of the senses.”  “I particularly enjoyed the ones dealing with pets because I have a cat and I’ve had pets most of my life.” she said.

The study found that almost 80 % of seniors reported having a more positive attitude after their VR session and almost 60 % said they felt less isolated socially. The enjoyment lessened somewhat for older respondents whose sight and hearing had deteriorated as well as those who disliked technology in general.  Importantly, almost 75 % of caregivers said residents’ moods improved after using VR. More than 80 % of residents and almost 95 % caregivers said talking about their VR experience enhanced their relationships with each other.

“ For the majority of our respondents, it was their first time using virtual reality. They enjoyed it. They were likely to recommend it to others, and they looked forward to doing it again.” said Ryan Moore, a Stanford doctoral candidate who helped lead the research about using VR to help with the well-being of  elders.  

Separate from the study, John Knox Village uses virtual reality in its unit that houses seniors who have Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia. It helps spur memories that lead to conversations with caregivers. “ It is like they come back to life when they tell their story.” said Hana Salem, the facility’s meaningful life coordinator. She said that with others who don’t talk much perk up when given a VR experience putting them in nature. “ They’ll start laughing and saying, ‘Ooh, I’m going to catch the butterflies.’ ” Salem said. It’s more fun for these seniors to come in and catch butterflies and work on shoulder rehab than it is to go pick up a weight. It was observed that these virtual experiences can bring back a tremendous amount of joy and many memories. And when the therapist or the other caregiver can work with that older adult and talk through things we see, it’s definitely uplifting.

On a recent afternoon at John Knox, a handful of seniors who live independently took turns using virtual reality. Pete Audet experienced what it would be like to fly in a wingsuit, soaring over show-capped mountains before landing in a field. “Oooh, running stop!” exclaimed Audet, a 76-year-old retired information technologist. He thinks other seniors “will really enjoy it – once they learn how to use it.”  His wife, Karen, “played” with puppies and was so entranced by her virtual walk around Paris that she didn’t hear questions being asked of her !  “I was there – and I was here.” said Karen Audet, an 82-year-old retired elementary school teacher.

Farrell, the retired Army computer expert, said he hopes to live to 100 because he believes the next five years will see momentous change in VR. Still a technology enthusiast, he believes the cost of systems will drop dramatically and become part of everyday living for many people (including seniors) – especially as the technology becomes more visually realistic, interactive and responsive. And at some point he expects there will be the option for VR systems to connected to your brain for even better experiences.

Feb 21, 2024                By Terry Spencer / CAIL             CAIL Innovation commentary                                       905-940-9000