Could Virtual Reality Help The Elderly?

Although virtual reality evokes the image of young people using gaming devices, developments in this technology have created new markets for it. VR is becoming increasingly attractive to the elderly, as well as those living with debilitating, immobilizing conditions.

Several VR companies have started to market their products to the elderly.  One project is Dr. Sonya Kim's Aloha VR program, which Kim hopes will be used as an alternative to watching television all the time and a change of mood or scenery for those who are not able to leave the house frequently, NPR reports.

Kim used to run a house-call practice several years ago, and once received a call from an 88-year-old woman who had stopped eating or drinking and had subsequently gone to the ER three times in a month, leading to $50,000 in bills.  

When Kim asked the woman why she had stopped eating or drinking, she said, "No one loves me. No one cares about me. I don't matter anymore. Why should I eat, why should I drink, why should I live? I just want to die today."

The experience helped confirm Kim's eventual decision to pursue VR as a way to help with caring for senior citizens.

"When I was driving back home from that visit, I couldn't stop sobbing. As a single woman without any kids, I thought, when I'm her age, who's going to call me? Who's going to take care of me?"

Kim first started the service One Caring Team, which talks on the phone with senior citizens about their mood, medications, happiness and generally positive subjects. She later became interested in VR as a possible treatment for dementia.

"There are over 100 clinical research papers that are already published that show proven positive clinical outcomes using VR in managing chronic pain, anxiety and depression," according to Kim. "And in dementia patients, all those three elements are very common."

The Aloha VR program simulates the relaxation and beauty of a Hawaiian beach; it has no games or storylines but instead surrounds the user with scenery.

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The point is to make the user feel welcome and like they are in a place they belong.

"Dementia patients often feel lost, because they feel that they don't belong anywhere, they may be confused about their surroundings or who they are. I want them to feel found again."

Rendever, a startup founded by Reed Hayes and Dennis Lally, is developing similar types of VR experience for seniors.

“Our mission is to expand the world with virtual reality for older adults, ultimately reducing isolation and depression and bringing them a higher quality of life," Hayes told BostInno. "We want to be the bridge between virtual reality and this population, who truly does need it but can’t do it themselves.”

Sources: NPR, BostInno / Photo credit: Honor Everywhere, One Caring Team via NPR

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