Who said seniors can’t be high-tech? Every day scientists are discovering new ways that technology can improve the lives of senior citizens. The latest innovation: virtual reality.
That’s right. Virtual reality, or VR, has seen a major boom in the last five years. And as scientists continue to develop VR technology, it’s proving to be much more than just a newfangled video game system for teenagers. VR is a useful tool that’s helping people of all ages — especially seniors — with everything from lowering blood pressure to making new friends.
VR is trending in retirement communities, assisted living homes, even hospitals and doctors’ offices, and it could be changing the future for seniors.
What is Virtual Reality?
If you keep up with the news, you’ve probably seen pictures of people wearing virtual reality goggles with futuristic names like Oculus Rift or Google Daydream. Some goggles hook up to a smartphone, while others connect to video game consoles or computers. These goggles put the wearer in a virtual world, where they can play games, simulate flying or visit real locations around the world.
But researchers are discovering that virtual reality is more than just fun and games. Used in the right setting, VR goggles can be useful tools for health and wellness with serious benefits for seniors.
Effects of VR on the Aging Brain
VR games are entertaining, but they also serve an important function: stimulating our minds with new activities.
Studies show that cognitive stimulation does wonders for the aging brain. Engaging in mentally stimulating activities can increase recall and thinking scores of those with memory loss, as well as help strengthen the brain’s “cognitive reserves” to replace damaged brain cells. The effects last even after the new activity has been complete. Caregivers report that after engaging in stimulating activities those with memory loss are better able to communicate and interact with others.
Triggering Old Memories
Everyone loses some memory with age, but for those with Alzheimer’s or dementia, the rate and severity of memory loss is drastic. However, there are certain activities that can trigger memory recall, and VR is one of them.
Neuroscience research shows that immersive VR experiences can help those with Alzheimer’s or dementia remember details about their lives, specifically when they use VR to virtually visit familiar locations.
How does it work? Anyone with a VR headset and a smartphone can use Google Earth to virtually travel the world. Google Earth uses 360-degree photos of real places to create an immersive experience of visiting locations around the globe.
For seniors VR gives them the chance to revisit places with special meaning, like the street they grew up on or the front lawn of their first home. And for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia, this may trigger old memories.
Using VR can be a special activity for any senior, with or without memory loss, and can be a way for family, friends and caregivers to bond with their loved one and learn more about their life story.
Virtual reality affects more than just the mind; it affects the body, too. New studies show that VR can have a positive impact on our physical health, specifically in reducing pain.
With opiate addiction at an all-time high, researchers are seeking new ways to reduce pain without heavy pain medications, and virtual reality just may be the solution. Doctors and researchers have developed “medical-grade VR” to help ease both long-term and acute pain.
These games are specially designed to increase mindfulness and distract patients from physical pain. In one study on chronic pain, those who used VR reported that pain was reduced by 33 percent after a virtual reality session (and 60 percent during the session).
Another study showed that VR can reduce even the most excruciating pain, particularly in burn victims. During painful burn wound care, patients played a VR game called SnowWorld. Based on flight simulation software, SnowWorld envelopes the patient in a virtual world where they fly through ice tunnels and throw snowballs with penguins and snowmen. Playing SnowWorld during painful procedures reduced pain by up to 50 percent. That’s more than any other tested method, such as music or other two-dimensional video games.
VR Designed for Seniors
Tech developers and medical professionals are recognizing the benefits that virtual reality could have for the elderly. In fact, they’re rolling out special VR apps made with senior living communities and caregivers in mind.
These VR apps could solve common challenges faced by seniors. As mobility decreases with age, so can the ability to get out of the house and into the world. VR can expand seniors’ worlds by giving them the opportunity to visit exotic locations and familiar places. In senior living community settings, VR sessions can be a great way to make new friends and bond with loved ones, residents and staff.
Can You Use Virtual Reality?
The good news about virtual reality is that it’s pretty accessible. You don’t have to buy fancy or expensive goggles to experience VR for yourself. Many VR headset models are made of cardboard, and you can buy them for just a few dollars online or at your local department or electronics store. All you need is a smartphone with the right apps installed, and you’ll be in a whole new world.
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