Scientists Test Virtual Reality Tools to Help Scientists Test Virtual Reality Tools to Help SeniorsSeniors

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.

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance writer whose childhood was made awesome by her grandmothers, great-grandmother, great-aunts and -uncles, and their friends.


  1. August 19, 2016 Reply

    An interesting read. Thanks for sharing this, Casey! I can’t wait for these to be installed in assisted living facilities. I especially like how this provides a safer alternative to hopping on planes and going on long drives. I’ve included this in our weekly roundup to share with our readers because I think that they will enjoy learning about this alternative as well.

  2. Jennifer May 22, 2017 Reply

    After experiencing my Father’s ICU psychosis I thought this would have been a good adaption for those in ICU for extended periods. All he wanted to do was go home. This technology would have alleviated some of that anxiety and possible psychosis. Please consider expanding the study to an ICU adaption.

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