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Virtual reality opens up new experiences and memories for Parry Sound's long-term-care residents


Taylor Clark


Participants can access a range of videos through categories like learning, travel, pets, nature, adventure and more

The Parry Sound Family Health Team has been unlocking new experiences for older adults in the area, one virtual reality headset at a time.

“If they can be transported back to an experience that they’ve had in their previous years and or a brand-new experience then it seemed like a good opportunity to try and see what it would do and see how they would respond to it,” said executive director Dr. Peter Istvan.

Using technology from MyndVR, residents at various organizations like the Gardens of Parry Sound, Belvedere Heights, Lakeland Long Term Care, The Friends, and Serenity Seniors Residence have been able to immerse themselves in experiences from all over the world to combat feelings of loneliness or isolation.

According to the 2016 census, close to 250,000 Canadians aged 85 and older were living in collective dwellings like nursing homes and long-term-care facilities. Since 2011, this number has grown at a faster rate than the nation’s total 85-and-older population.

Loneliness has been known to rear its ugly head in these facilities for several reasons and has been linked to physical and mental health.

Istvan said the virtual reality project took flight prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but was able to expand its sessions with recent one-time government funding.

Through the virtual reality goggles, users can be transported to endless possibilities, from base jumping in the French Alps to racing around the track at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, all from the click of an iPad.

Virtual reality co-ordinator Valerie Stanley said the videos vary in length and were organized in categories ranging from learning to adventure.

“It's a nice escape for these people so they can learn, they can travel, they can have mindfulness and very calming, relaxing experiences, which could be good for pain management. It could be used for anxiety,” said Stanley.

Although she may have never encountered virtual reality had it not been for the project, Stanley said it has been an easy transition from her over 30 years as a mental health therapist.

“When people are anxious or people are in pain, I can recommend mindfulness videos,” she said. “They can wear the headset and just sit back, watch and listen to an immersive video.”

And the lifetime of experiences comes at no cost to the user.

“That means no matter what your background, what your economic standing is, you can experience anything. That really opened the door for anybody to experience anything, which was pretty exciting,” said Istvan.

Participant George Neist told the Family Health Team that he had quite an experience for his first dive into virtual reality.

“I travelled to Venice, and it didn’t cost me a cent. And the next thing, I was down at Le Mans at the racetrack, and it didn’t cost me anything,” said Neist.

Stanley said the project hoped to include more local content in the future for participants, like videos of Georgian Bay, to unlock some of their favourite memories.

“We’re hoping that we continue to receive funding for this project for the value that it brings not only to the residents’ experiencing it and the joy it brings, in a small snapshot of an opportunity where they have less loneliness or less isolation,” said Istvan. “But the fact that the people around them also benefit from (it) — specifically, their family members.”

To learn more about the virtual reality project, check out the Parry Sound Family Health Team YouTube channel to hear more from participants and their families.

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