Scientists Test Virtual Reality Tools to Help Seniors
Students from MIT are helping assisted living residents visit tourist destinations and their old neighborhoods with virtual reality (VR) headsets. Caregivers say the technology can spark more social interaction, alleviate boredom, and may eventually let seniors virtually visit family gatherings they can’t attend in person. Doctors say the technology could help them treat anxiety and assess cognitive function in dementia patients, help diabetes patients stay active, and more. Here’s what virtual reality is doing for seniors now, and what it may do soon.
Virtual visits to familiar spots and new places
Two MIT graduate students have been treating Boston-area assisted living residents to trips they couldn’t take without the help of virtual reality. The Boston Globe reported in May on the students’ startup, Rendever, which is testing VR experiences including trips to seniors’ old neighborhoods, bucket-list destinations like Paris and Venice, and even outer space. Rendever recently shot scenic VR footage in Iceland to add to its virtual destinations.
So far, the response from testers has been enthusiastic. Rendever told the Globe VR could also be used to help homebound seniors fully experience far-off family gatherings. The startup’s goal is to offer headsets and a subscription VR service to assisted living centers.
Sensory and mobility training for better quality of life
Other researchers are exploring the uses of virtual reality to provide therapy and assistance for seniors with conditions like diabetic neuropathy, hearing loss, vision impairment, and balance problems. Biomechanical engineers at the University of Arizona are combining virtual reality training courses with wearable biosensors to help at-risk seniors improve their balance, maintain muscle tone, and resume activities they enjoy.
When the UA program launched in 2012 it focused on people with diabetic neuropathy, which can make walking difficult and increases the risk of falls. Now UA says, “people with osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, cancer, HIV, Parkinson’s disease, COPD, vertigo and stroke also stand to benefit from the technology.”
Future VR help for seniors
Because VR creates a set of sensory experiences, some geriatricians and brain researchers expect it to offer more therapy options for seniors in the future. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Marc Agronin, a Miami-based geriatric psychiatrist, imagines some encouraging scenarios for seniors. For example, Agronin thinks VR can be adapted to help older drivers navigate roads safely at night by providing extra visibility and warnings. He also envisions VR help for people with cognitive problems – a way to remind users of the names of people they know and objects in their homes.
In Boston, neurologist Brad Dickerson told the Globe he’s interested in testing virtual reality as a safe way to test patients’ real-world functioning levels without the risk of putting them behind the wheel of a car, for example.
Virtual reality right now
The Samsung Gear VR headset sells for about $100. Gear pairs with selected Samsung phones and game controllers so users can play games like Minecraft, time-travel to destinations like King Tut’s tomb, and unwind with guided meditation programs. The device is popular. European customers have bought more than 300,000 Gear units since the start of 2016. If virtual reality delivers on its promise of better senior health, VR headsets may become must-have items for older adults everywhere.