How Virtual Reality Goggles Can Help Seniors

Health Writer
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John Sacco, M.D., has spent weeks traveling the world without ever having to leave his Connecticut home. The retired doctor of internal medicine has been to India, Italy, and England with the help of virtual reality goggles.

"You feel like you’re actually present,” Sacco says. “I thought it was great.”

Virtual reality technology generates images and sounds that make it feel as though you are immersed in a three-dimensional, life-size environment. The goggles strap around your head and move with you so that you feel, for example, like you’re in the middle of an African safari, swimming with a pod of dolphins, or even visiting your hometown.

For those who might not actually be able to travel because of physical limitations, “it can broaden their ability to experience things, sitting in their chair inside a room,” Sacco says.

Sacco lives in Maplewood at Strawberry Hill, an upscale community for senior citizens in East Norwalk, Conn. Maplewood is introducing the goggles at all 14 of its locations.

“It stimulates people’s cognition and emotion in ways that regular television does not,” says Brian Geyser, Maplewood Senior Living’s vice president of clinical innovation and population health.

Maplewood began testing the goggles with a group of residents at Strawberry Hill early in 2017. “The entertainment value alone was really impressive,” Geyser says. Residents, their family members, and staff all tried the goggles.

The goggles also are designed to address “the social isolation that occurs” as seniors age, says Kyle Rand, co-founder of Rendever, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff that created the virtual reality goggles used at Maplewood communities.

Virtual reality as a memory tool

Virtual reality has been used in reminiscence therapy for people with dementia to help them remember earlier times, and in distraction therapy for those suffering from pain or from conditions such as dementia, anxiety, and agitation, Geyser says.

Albert “Skip” Rizzo, Ph.D., director for medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, says that years ago he would use index cards with pictures of various objects on them to conduct reminiscence therapy with people who had mild cognitive impairment and had problems forming new memories.

He’d show groups of people the cards with images of such things as a wringer washing machine, prompting group members to talk about their experiences with the machine.

Virtual reality goggles enhance that. “It activates old memories and positive emotions as they start sharing,” Rizzo says.

Virtual reality as a fall prevention tool

The technology has other uses as well, such as helping to prevent falls among the elderly. A study published this year by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University found that virtual reality googles can be used to detect balance problems before they cause people to fall.

Researchers used virtual reality to create the illusion that study participants had lost their balance while walking on a treadmill, and then recorded how participants’ muscles responded. Researchers hope that in the future virtual reality can be tested as a physical therapy tool to help people improve their balance and avoid falling.

For people who are not using the googles in a supervised setting like a research study, Rizzo recommends putting them on only when sitting down to prevent tripping and falling. And he warns that some users may get nauseous or dizzy while using the goggles.

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