John Faulkner, 76, was becoming emotionally withdrawn before coming to Central Park Assisted Living and Memory Care, the place where he lives in Mason, Ohio. At the time he had been an avid traveler, but cognitive decline ended that and he became socially isolated. When Faulkner came to Central Parke, he would sit alone in his room for hours, according to Esther Mwilu, who organizes activities for the community.
Her treatment plan for dementia-related anxiety included antipsychotic medications and reminiscence therapya decades-old practice in which older adults engage with memories of their youthsuch as music or personal photographs, intended to spark memories and cultivate joy and meaning.
Faulkner was steeped in nostalgia. So the staff at Central Parke decided to try again, but with the addition of virtual reality. Although studies suggest that traditional reminiscence therapy can significantly improve the well-being of older people, virtual reality has the potential to make it more immersive and impactful. When he donned the VR headset, Faulkner could walk the virtual Cliffs of Moher in the west of Ireland, just as he did with his wife several years earlier.
That was his turning point. Now, three months later, she has a 45-minute virtual reminiscence therapy session every Monday. Mwilu even said that she needs less anxiety medication and is more sociable. She also began teaching other residents how to make paper airplanes.
At present toRoughly half a dozen companies focus on providing virtual reality reminiscence therapy for seniors in homes. One of the biggest, Renderworks with more than 450 installations in the United States, Canada and Australia, while another, MyndVRis also associated with hundreds of these.
They are part of a growing trend that uses virtual reality in healthcare, including the treatment of patients with trauma and chronic pain . And with the number of people over the age of 65 expected to nearly double by 2060 in the United States, there is an urgent need for technological aids like VR for elder care. More than 11 million Americans act as unpaid caregivers for a relative with dementia. Juggling careers and multiple caregiving roles, the middle-aged “sandwich generation” is looking to virtual reality and other technologies, such as robotic pets, for support.
Eddie Rayden of Rhode Island said his 91-year-old mother, Eileen, was shocked when she used virtual reality to see the Cleveland neighborhood where she grew up. “She lit up right away,” she said. “Suddenly, she was standing in front of the house she hadn’t been in for over 80 years.”
The concept of reminiscence therapy dates back to 1963. At the time, many psychiatrists at the time discouraged anything that seemed to live in the past, but Robert Butlerwho later founded the National Institute on Aging, he argued that older people could derive therapeutic value from putting their lives into perspective. Since then, psychologists increasingly recommend the use of old videos of weddings or favorite childhood foods as tools to help older people, including those with dementia. Experts say that Older adults who often worry about declining short-term memory often find comfort in reminiscing about their past, especially their younger days.
During the last decade, faster and more powerful technology made virtual reality more and more realistic and has led to studies showing how older people can use it to re-experience significant parts of their lives. In 2018, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that virtual reality reduced depression and isolation among older people. Other studies suggested that virtual reality reminiscence improves morale, engagement, anxiety, and cognition by stimulating mental activity, although it may not necessarily reverse cognitive decline.
Still, larger studies are still needed before all people over the age of 75 don helmets. Dr. Jeremy Bailenson, director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory, is currently leading a 12-state clinical trial to try to get more concrete information on the subject.
“I would never want virtual reality to completely replace non-VR reminiscence therapy,” he said, but “different people need different tools.”
Older people today can pay companies for virtual reality headsets and for access to a library of virtual experiences, many of which are designed for reminiscence therapy. They will also be able to participate in them individually or in group sessions.
No prescriptions are needed and the participants generally outnumber the virtual headsets. Caregivers and researchers said they begin to see benefits after multiple sessions over a month or two. Stephen Eatman, vice president of Sunshine Retirement Living, which runs Central Parke, said the company’s use of antipsychotics decreased by as much as 70 percent in seniors using virtual reality therapy.
In addition to reliving trips to places like Ireland, users can teleport to bars or clubs that remind them of their youth. MyndVR offers visits to flamenco, ragtime and classical music venues, with musicians and actors dressed as they were in that era.
But users are not limited to nostalgic “prepackaged” experiences. Family, friends and caregivers can also record a 3D video of a holiday or event that the person can virtually attend again and again to reinforce new memories. Other family members search Google Streetview for important places in the life of the older adult that can be turned into realms of virtual reality.
Dorothy Yu, a business consultant from Weston, Massachusetts, decided to convert the streets around the University of Missouri campus to virtual reality so her father could see the buildings where he had taught. Now, as a 90-something-year resident of Maplewood Senior Living in Massachusetts, she can look back on the work she did there with pride, both during the session and afterwards.
“I’ve never seen such a reaction to this technology,” said Brian Geyser, vice president of Maplewood, which now offers virtual reality in each of its 17 communities.
To participate in virtual reality therapy, they must put on a technological helmet that covers their eyes and blocks all light to enter the three-dimensional world. For some seniors who didn’t grow up with computers, this immersive technology can be overwhelmingsaid Amanda Lazar, a human-computer interaction researcher at the University of Maryland.
“The face is a very personal part of the body,” said Davis Park, vice president of the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellness, a nonprofit that brings technology, including virtual reality, to older communities. someone with dence may worry if you notice that your eyes are covered or you may have trouble understanding the purpose of strapping a machine over your facePark said.
To lessen these risks, Sunshine Retirement limits virtual reality activities to certain rooms where seniors can safely use the technology. Also they avoid showing these places that could trigger traumatic memoriesEatman said, but people’s reactions are hard to predict.
Most providers also limit VR reminiscence sessions to 45 minutes, although even with that duration, they can cause dizziness and headaches, especially with certain medications. Virtual reality headsets may also be too heavy for some older adults’ necks or may not take hearing and vision impairments into account.
Another drawback: VR can isolate you socially. Traditionally, reminiscence therapy has encouraged groups of older people to bond with each other and with caregivers through special memories. “If someone puts on the helmet, the people around them are blocked,” said Dr. Lazar.
The Iona Washington Home Center in the southeast of the US capital attempts to solve this by projecting seniors’ virtual reality experiences onto a 2-D screen for others to view and discuss. The center, run by a nonprofit organization, received its RV helmets through a government grant that is common for retirement homes. “People here don’t have a lot of money,” said Keith Jones, the program’s specialist. “Most of them never got to see the world.” When he takes groups to another country in virtual reality, Jones places the few members who have visited the place at the head of the table to share their memories.
In the future, virtual reality may offer another way for seniors to combat loneliness as you enter the experience with your loved ones.
Tamara Afifi, a researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara, studied virtual reality and dementia and now is researching new technologies that allow family members to travel together. Ms. Rayden, a 91-year-old resident of Maravilla Senior Living, a community in Santa Barbara, participated in Afifi’s investigation. She and her 66-year-old son took a tour of his old Cleveland neighborhood together, even though he was in Rhode Island.
“I showed him where we played hopscotch and sledding in the winter,” he said. “It was important for me to get to know the house we had and the neighborhood. It was my childhood. It brought back wonderful memories.”
Since Rayden’s husband died in 2019, she has been battling sadness and loneliness. Until now, virtual reality has allowed her to take her son to the Florida Intracoastal Waterway, where she had enjoyed a fishing vacation with her husband. “She loved to fish,” she said. “What happy memories.”
Ruth Grande, executive director of Maravilla, said that adult children can “stop being a caregiver for 30 minutes” when they have these experiences with their loved ones. “They remember what it is like to enjoy being with their relative,” she said.