Retirement homes are using VR headsets to provide therapy for those with dementia
Communal areas in care homes are more usually the setting for hosted games of bingo or hour after hour of daytime television.
Now visitors to retirement homes across America may be surprised to find the residents wearing virtual reality (VR) headsets as experts use the latest technology to fight loneliness and alleviate anxiety for those with dementia.
Studies have shown that “reminiscence therapy” — which includes activities such as viewing childhood pictures or listening to favourite music — can boost someone’s mood, and VR is being used to provide a more immersive experience.
Either alone or in group sessions elderly users can take a virtual walk down the street they lived on as a child, or visit a beloved holiday destination.
For the past four years Dr Jeremy Bailenson, the director of Stanford University’s virtual human interaction lab, has been working with MyndVR, a company that specialises in reminiscence therapy, to put hundreds of headsets in care homes across America.
MyndVR said the therapy reduced feelings of loneliness and isolation while boosting happiness and peace of mind. Bailenson said: “The efficacy has been shown in terms of helping the wellbeing of seniors.”
Bailenson said one surprising finding from his work has been the ease at which elderly users were able to make the most of the headsets. Unlike modern mobile phones which might confuse and intimidate some older people, he said VR was much easier to get to grips with.
“If you want to look at an object, you simply turn your head the same way you would in the real world. If you want to get closer to an object, you move your chair closer to that object and it gets bigger.”
VR is not for everyone, however. Some people suffer motion sickness while others may experience headaches from spending too long with the helmet.
And while the technology has made significant advances, Bailenson said that how useful VR headsets can be for elderly users depended on clinicians being able to create the right content to pair with the technology.
He said: “The headsets are now inexpensive and comfortable and can create experiences to help seniors with memory and wellbeing and social connection.
“The question now is what is the type of content that we’re going to give them that is clinically valid, that’s going to accelerate care and wellbeing? I’m optimistic.”
A crucial next step, according to Bailenson, is encouraging a wider societal shift towards accepting VR headsets as a clinically useful tool.
“What we now need is for society and industry and policy to normalise [headsets] so that we can scale this up responsibly.”