Virtual Reality gets real in fight against aging

Virtual Reality isn’t just for the young – it’s a very real solution to combat age-related health conditions, as well as loneliness.

Initially developed for the gaming industry, it may seem as if Virtual Reality (VR) is geared towards a digital native audience. However, VR is being deployed in the health, wellness and medical sector, both as entertainment, and in health treatment programmes, for the elderly. [1]

A review of the use of VR for older adults both now and in the future also found that VR can be a useful tool to combat issues of loneliness and isolation, which is more prevalent among the elderly as a result of a number of factors, including bereavement. [2] 

According to recent research, more than a third of adults over the age of 45 said they felt lonely [3], with those feelings of isolation often exacerbated as a result of physical conditions and disability which can make it hard to get out and about. [4]

In a bid to alleviate such feelings of loneliness, which can lead to serious conditions such as depression, researchers and those working within the longevity and anti-aging sectors are turning their attention towards VR.

There has been a growing body of work surrounding the use of VR by and for the elderly. [5] For instance, VR is being used in programs designed to aid stroke victims’ recovery in a system that can address spatial awareness, balance and peripheral vision. 

Now, the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing (FPCIW), in conjunction with CDW Healthcare, is looking at the use of VR in senior care [6]. In a report titled VR in Aging, which follows the introduction of VR during sessions with care home residents, the FPCIW says its own experiences as an aging-services provider suggest “VR is an accessible and impactful solution for elder care”. 

However, the report adds that VR is best used as part of an overall solution rather as a stand-alone tool. The report says: “VR is most effective as a tool or medium to facilitate older adult engagement and human connection, rather than a panacea for solving social isolation.”

VR is now being used in a range of scenarios for the elderly [7]. Those in nursing homes and hospices are taken on journeys that would otherwise not have been possible. They can virtually travel back to where they married, or did national service, or can embark on bucket list trips, for example. It is also being used in the battle against Alzheimer’s and dementia as well as to encourage the elderly to exercise and stay mobile.  

However, the white paper from the FPVIW does warn that VR is not without side effects, including motion sickness, vertigo and feelings of disembodiment. 

The FPVIW white paper concludes: “Virtual reality, once thought of as a product of science fiction and then as a platform for video gamers, has developed into a viable and innovative solution that can appeal across all generations.”

It continues: “It is not a solution for every older adult, but the technology is flexible, adaptable, and continually evolving and improving. Where the technology often shines is in its use as a tool or a medium for conversations, the sharing of stories, revisiting memories, connecting with family members and fulfilling bucket lists.

“No matter what VR solution is selected it is key to be mindful of how this powerful technology can be used to facilitate engagement, human connection and meaningful experiences.”


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