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Can Virtual Reality Make Older Adults Happier and Healthier?

Texas Monthly

Omar L. Gallaga


A Plano company claims its immersive experiences—from scuba diving to jazz concerts—represent the future of eldercare.

Harry Meador and his wife of 58 years, Masako Meador, are about to jump out of a plane. They’ve never been skydiving, and while Harry is enthusiastic, Masako seems hesitant. But they take the leap anyway. As she plummets downward, Masako cries, “Oh no! Oh my goodness!” but soon gets into the spirit. She giggles, leans her head back, and raises her hands out to her sides before the parachute deploys and delivers her safely to the ground.

Only, in reality, there is no parachute and no plane. The octogenarian Meadors have virtual reality goggles strapped to their heads, and they’re sitting on a couch at the Saddle Brook Memory Care Community, in Frisco. The scene they jumped into was filmed in 360 degrees—capturing the view in every possible direction—and brought here by MyndVR, a company headquartered a short drive away, in neighboring Plano.

Virtual reality, with its bulky headsets and controllers, is most often associated with young gamers, who have plenty of companies chasing after their dollars. MyndVR is one of relatively few VR tech firms targeting the senior set. It offers virtual experiences that range from playing with a litter of puppies to visiting Paris to attending a Broadway show. The company claims such content can provide more than entertainment: it can also serve as therapy to ward off the effects of social isolation and the physical toll of aging.

Industry experts predict that today’s $6.1 billion VR market will be worth $21 billion by 2025, and that number could grow even larger if those age 65 or older, who constitute 16 percent of the U.S. population, embrace the technology. MyndVR and at least two other virtual reality firms targeting older adults—Scotland’s Viarama and Massachusetts-based Rendever—are out to ensure that happens.

As many Americans age, their worlds and their social networks shrink. That long-standing phenomenon has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic because seniors are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, and many older adults have been kept physically separated from family and friends to safeguard their health. But social isolation comes with its own significant medical costs. It has been associated with, for example, a 29 percent greater risk of heart disease and a 32 percent greater risk of stroke. Of course, the effects of loneliness on seniors can come on top of the usual litany of aging-related ailments, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The potential for VR to help in combating these problems lies in the technology’s effects on the mind, though much research remains to be done to prove its efficacy. “Any activity that promotes curiosity, critical thinking, and meaningful social engagement is good for the brain’s health and fitness. 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,” said Aaron Tate, director of emerging technology at the University of Texas at Dallas’s Center for BrainHealth. (UT-Dallas students and faculty assisted in the development of MyndVR’s software.) “Whether or not VR takes root in the mainstream remains to be seen, but recent advances in therapeutic and clinical use cases are certainly here to stay.”

Chris Brickler, the cofounder and CEO of MyndVR, previously spent a decade as CEO of Xlantic, a Los Angeles company that makes commercials and other videos. After leaving that job, in the summer of 2016, the University of Texas at Austin alum and a friend hit upon the idea of using VR to benefit seniors. That friend, Shawn Wiora, was then chief information officer for a Fort Worth–based company that operates a chain of senior rehabilitation centers and nursing homes. Brickler and Wiora got early funding in 2018 from, among others, two Texas-based venture capital firms—AustinLee Ventures, in Houston, and Capital Factory, in Austin. “I had been in California for years and years,” Brickler said. “It was really special to come back to Texas.”

The company said it has raised $4 million from investors, including HTC, the Taiwanese electronics company that helped develop Google’s Pixel smartphone. In December, MyndVR announced the purchase of Immersive Cure, an Ohio-based VR therapy firm that’s attempting to use virtual reality to relieve pain, stress, and anxiety among elderly patients and veterans. This acquisition is intended to increase MyndVR’s presence in hospice care and in the treatment of veterans.

MyndVR said it has several hundred clients in 45 U.S. states, as well as in Canada and Australia. Most are senior living communities, which pay about $6,000 a year to rent three headsets, complete with access to VR programs, for residents. Last year, partly in response to the pandemic’s forcing many seniors to isolate at home, MyndVR also began offering subscriptions for individuals, with rates starting at $395 a month. The service includes use of a headset and an optional tablet, as well as instructions in large print. The company hopes to soon offer a way for relatives or caregivers to guide seniors through a VR experience remotely.

MyndVR creates its software primarily at its offices in Plano. Its headsets, which are designed to be lightweight and sync with an accompanying tablet, were developed in conjunction with HTC and Pico Interactive, a headset maker. MyndVR aims to make its profits as a subscription software service, not as a hardware vendor.

Some of the programming that MyndVR offers is produced by others. Chief among the providers is Little Star Media, with which MyndVR has a five-year deal to license VR applications and videos acquired from National Geographic, Discovery, Disney, and other media companies. Those offerings include an immersive video of Broadway’s Lion King, in which viewers take in the performance as if they’re onstage while it’s happening.

MyndVR’s homemade programming includes a recent ten-part travel series called A Road to Remember: Route 66. It features stops along the historic highway, from the starting point in Chicago to the terminus at the Santa Monica Pier, in California. The company has also produced live classical and jazz concerts that it recorded in a 360-degree format at the Sammons Center for the Arts, in Dallas. “We try to film things that have nostalgia and iconic content,” Brickler said. “It all has the intention to somehow help in the process of reminiscence therapy.”

Reminiscence therapy stimulates the senses of touch, smell, sound, taste, or sight to help patients with dementia recall people, places, and events from their lives. Tapping into memories can bring out buried parts of a personality, said Nicole Fowler, associate director of the Indiana University Center for Aging Research. She cited the example of singer Tony Bennett, who in a 60 Minutes interview last year was seemingly rejuvenated as soon as he was prompted to perform to instrumental music, as he’d done for decades. “He’s got pretty severe dementia, and you can see it,” she said. But then “the piano starts playing, and everything about him sort of changed. He went right to the piano and was able to sing, right off the cuff, from memory.”

While there’s not yet a definitive scientific consensus that VR is a beneficial treatment for memory loss, two studies in recent years, from Australia and Taiwan, each examined the use of reminiscence therapy to treat symptoms such as apathy among seniors. Their findings lend support to the idea that VR can help improve psychological health. Fowler said the technology could have effects similar to those of other sensory experiences. “It may not slow down cognitive decline, but you could imagine its impact on patients’ quality of life and their families’ quality of life,” she said. If it can also help treat symptoms of apathy, depression, and dementia, she added, “I think that’s where the potential is.”

MyndVR’s moves come at a time when virtual reality and augmented reality technologies are being integrated to a greater degree into health care. Companies such as Magic Leap, one of the most well-funded VR/AR firms, are working on applications that might treat persistent dizziness, for example, and virtual reality is already being used in telemedicine, health education, and the management of chronic pain. Using it to contend with the effects of aging seems like a natural extension of these efforts.

However, Fowler warned that caregivers must remain cautious in using VR technology with some seniors. Introducing unfamiliar stimulation to patients with dementia, for instance, carries the risk of increasing discomfort if it’s not implemented correctly. “It’s something to watch for, that it isn’t so disorienting to somebody that it actually makes symptoms worse,” Fowler said. “Luckily for VR, it’s not a drug, so the idea of it being harmful is probably much lower risk.”

Majd Alwan, senior vice president of technology and business strategy at LeadingAge—a nonprofit representing more than five thousand aging-focused organizations and researchers—likewise warns that caregivers for older adults must remain wary of the potential downsides of VR. “We’ve been seeing significant interest in bringing these experiences to people who are confined to spaces or have mobility or cognitive decline,” he said. “If users overuse them and become addicted, there’s the risk of isolation and detachment from reality. So we need to balance the VR with actual in-person activities.”

There remain relatively few published studies on VR’s therapeutic effectiveness among seniors. A page on MyndVR’s website dedicated to sharing VR research features nothing more recent or relevant than a 2017 study that examined VR treatment for inpatient hospital care, and not specifically to aid older adults. In 2020 MyndVR teamed up with several universities, including UT-Dallas, Florida Atlantic University, and the University of Pennsylvania, to examine its product’s worth. The coalition will study VR’s medical efficacy for seniors. MyndVR has also partnered with Stanford University to study the effects of VR on the psychological well-being of older adults. The results of these research efforts aren’t yet available.

Proving any benefit will be key to getting VR recognized by physicians as a useful therapeutic tool and potentially approved by the FDA as a medical device, both of which could unlock insurance coverage for VR’s use. “We’re at the embryonic stage of understanding this brain science,” Brickler conceded.

Still, some are already convinced of the power of the technology. At Atria at the Arboretum, a senior living apartment complex in Northwest Austin, groups of residents have been sailing and dogsledding with MyndVR’s tech for months. “I sort of market it as mental health, stress relief,” said Amy Casillas, an activities director at Atria. “It’s just sort of fostering something new, and I’ve found VR very helpful for folks who had trouble communicating. They can take a walk on the beach or just sit by the sea. Once, we had a fan blowing on them, and I spritzed a light spray, to make it fully sensory.”

Whereas a more typical, younger VR user might swing a bat to hit virtual curveballs in a game, senior users’ interactivity is intentionally limited almost entirely to experiences undergone sitting down. This helps to reduce the potential for falls. MyndVR is working on more interactive programs—in one already-completed example, users are asked to catch butterflies in a “net” (a wireless paddle controller).

But there are opportunities for thrill-seekers such as Sali Fonda, a ninety-year-old former bodybuilder who had long missed scuba diving, an activity she hadn’t participated in in twenty years. When I visited Atria last fall, Fonda was excited to jump into the virtual deep—into a cage protecting her from a shark-filled sea. As she sat in a padded swivel chair inside the community’s ballroom, Fonda moved her head up and down, left and right, her view of the 360-degree underwater scene changing with each turn. Schools of fish bobbed above her, and the sharks glided all around. She reached a hand toward one of the ocean predators. “Whoa,” she said.

After a few minutes, the goggles came off, and the dive ended. Applause broke out among the Atria residents who had been watching Fonda’s adventure on a large screen in two dimensions, as opposed to the three she experienced. “That was fun!” Fonda said, laughing. “I was right there! I loved it!” Later, when some of the adrenaline had worn off, she told me, “When you’re ninety, your life is over. This is going to make life new again.”

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