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Virtual Reality Brings Joy to People in Assisted-Living Facilities

The Wall Street Journal

Bonnie Miller Rubin


Studies show improved emotional health among residents who watch VR images

A nursing-home resident in Falls Church, Va., experiences virtual reality nature scenes. PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/Associated Press
A nursing-home resident in Falls Church, Va., experiences virtual reality nature scenes. PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/Associated Press

On a recent afternoon, Frank James, a resident at Commonwealth Senior Living in Charlottesville, Va., snared a front-row seat to the Broadway production of “Aladdin”—without ever leaving the facility.

The 91-year-old traveled to the performance via virtual reality. Using a set of goggles from Dallas-based MyndVR, he got a 360-degree view of the stage and theater, letting him move his head to see the show—and the space around him—from any angle, as if he were actually there.

“Claire just loved that music,” he says, referring to his late wife of 65 years. “Seeing these shows again is invigorating…. It just takes your mind off things like the lockdown.”

Once limited to gaming, VR is being embraced by an increasing number of long-term-care communities, which are turning to the devices to improve wellness and quality of life for this growing population. The caregivers say that letting residents roam through virtual environments such as distant cities or the outdoors helps them combat an array of age-related conditions—such as loneliness, depression and perhaps even cognitive deficits.

Striking results

VR has gotten a big boost during the pandemic, as care-facility residents faced new restrictions on visitors and activities. Over the long term, the technology could prove useful for treating a rapidly aging population that is retiring at the rate of 10,000 a day and living longer than ever: By 2040, the life expectancy will rise to 85 from 79.4 in 2015, the Census Bureau projects.

Researchers say it isn’t clear yet why the technology works so well at helping seniors. But over the past three years, a handful of studies have shown the technology’s positive effects on the emotional health of older adults.

For instance, one field study done in 2018 by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that almost 39% of a group of assisted-living residents reported “better perceived overall health” after watching VR images related to travel and relaxation. For another group who watched the same images on TV, the figure was only 14.3%, according to Chaiwoo Lee, one of the paper’s co-authors.

The results were even more impressive when it came to perceived emotional well-being: 29.7% for the VR group reported an improvement compared with 4.8% of the TV participants, Dr. Lee says. A total of 63 assisted-living residents, with a median age of 88, participated in the study.

Another study, from researchers at the University of California San Francisco, looked at 48 older adults with typical cognitive capabilities for their age, an average of 68.7 years old. Those who played a specially developed VR game over a four-week period showed an improvement in long-term memory—back to a level similar to younger adults. But those who played the game on a tablet didn’t see the same results, according to the study, published in Nature in January.

There is still a lot of work to be done regarding VR as a therapeutic intervention for declining memory, says Peter Wais, a cognitive neuroscientist at UCSF and lead author of the study. For example, it is unclear how the gains should be attributed between effects from the “richness of detail of VR or the movement required to participate,” he says.

Here’s how VR works: The user chooses a destination and is quickly transported to a 360-degree digital reality through the lenses of the headset. The goggles detect even the slightest head movement, providing a panoramic view of the new surroundings, as well as detailed physical sensations of being there. You can hear the street noise as you sit at a cafe in Paris or sense the rocking of your gondola as you drift down the Grand Canal in Venice.

Cheaper, more portable systems—with higher-quality audio and better resolution for older eyes—have increased access, nudging the technology into the mainstream. In the 1990s, cost was a barrier with the average system weighing in at about $10,000 and 75 pounds, says Walter Greenleaf, neuroscientist and medical technology developer at Stanford University, who has been following the digital landscape for 35 years.

Companies are springing up to package and sell VR experiences to senior-care facilities. MyndVR, which made the Broadway VR that Mr. James recently enjoyed, is one of the largest producers and aggregators of content. The company launched in 2018, according to CEO Chris Brickler, and is now in more than 150 elder-care facilities in 47 states and Canada, with hundreds of titles in its library. The most popular genres are travel, animals and music.

Other VR companies such as Rendever Inc., Viva Vita and Embodied Labs also make products for use in elder-care homes. Rendever, of Somerville, Mass., says its VR products are in use in 250 senior homes, while Viva Vita, based in Washington, D.C., says 10 senior-care facilities are using its VR package.

Improved tech

Most companies sell a package including headsets, content and continuing support for an initial fee plus a monthly subscription. MyndVR says its starter price is $6,000 a year per senior community with a two-year contract. This includes three headsets and access to its library of VR content, among other things.

The onset of coronavirus in 2020 had providers scrambling to find ways to ease isolation and engage residents. Paula Harder, vice president of resident programs at Commonwealth, says she spent two months researching technology before settling on MyndVR, because it has a lot of content geared to older adults. Commonwealth now has one set of goggles at each of its 34 locations across the Southeast. Residents can use the system whenever they like with staff assistance. It is also included in the monthly activity calendar to “encourage participation and sensory stimulation.” It is used in both the memory-care section for those with dementia and general assisted living.

“While the obvious reactions after using the system are smiles, laughing and reminiscing, there is added therapeutic value as well,” Ms. Harder says, adding that residents are observed to be more alert, more talkative and engaged with their surroundings after the experience. “Residents in our memory-care neighborhood have been observed to be more oriented to their surroundings … and even more coordinated in their speech and movement.”

Senior-care providers also say that VR technology is engaging and easy to use, for a generation of residents that is just beginning to include a wave of tech-savvier baby boomers. (MyndVR’s Mr. Brickler says he just got his first request to create content featuring a ZZ Top concert.)

When Billy Blake, director of lifestyle at Beacon Hill in Lombard, Ill., observes residents of the senior-care facilities using its four Rendever headsets, he says he’s impressed at how people become more alert, especially in the memory-support unit. “Even with nonverbal residents, the virtual images can trigger speech,” he says. “I’m always looking for nonpharmaceutical approaches to making residents happier.”

VR also can connect older adults to families living far away. Though it isn’t designed specifically for older adults in senior housing, AARP Innovation Labs introduced Alcove, an app for Oculus devices, in 2019 as a way for family members to share an array of virtual experiences together, whether that is swimming with dolphins or playing a game of chess.

At Embodied Labs, VR technology also plays a key role in promoting senior wellness, but is aimed at caregivers rather than residents. The platform uses VR as a training tool, so employees can walk in the shoes of someone with diminished memory, vision or mobility.

Beyond building empathy, the technology can teach staff how to provide better care, such as preventing a fall or calming agitated residents, because they have experienced it themselves, says Embodied Labs CEO Carrie Shaw. The 33-year-old entrepreneur started the company in 2016, after the death of her mother from Alzheimer’s. Today, Embodied Labs is in more than 200 senior organizations and 50 academic institutions to train the future healthcare workforce.

“I always wanted to experience life from my mom’s perspective,” Ms. Shaw says. “Now, we can do it in a safe and immersive way.”

Ms. Miller Rubin is a writer in Chicago.

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