John Faulkner, 76, was becoming emotionally withdrawn before arriving at Central Parke Assisted Living and Memory Care, where he lives in Mason, Ohio. He had once been a great traveler, but cognitive decline put an end to this and he became socially isolated. When Faulkner arrived in 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 medication and reminiscence therapya decades-old practice in which the elderly reconnect with the memories of their youthlike music or personal photographs, meant to spark memories and cultivate joy and meaning.
Faulkner was steeped in nostalgia. Central Parke staff therefore 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 the elderly, virtual reality has the potential to make it more immersive and impactful. When he put on the VR headset, Faulkner could roam the virtual Cliffs of Moher in the west of Ireland, as he had done with his wife several years earlier.
This was his turning point. Now, three months later, he has a 45-minute virtual reminiscence therapy session every Monday. Mwilu even said he needed less anxiety medication and was more social. He also started teaching other residents how to make paper airplanes.
Currently atAbout half a dozen companies focus on providing virtual reality reminiscence therapy for seniors in their homes. One of the biggest, Returnworks with over 450 installations in the United States, Canada and Australia, while another, MyndVRis also associated with hundreds of them.
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 65 expected to nearly double by 2060 in the United States, there is an urgent need for technological aids like virtual reality for elderly care. More than 11 million Americans act as unpaid caregivers for a relative with dementia. Juggling careers and multiple caregiver roles, the middle-aged “sandwich generation” is turning to virtual reality and other technologies, such as robotic pets, for help.
Rhode Island’s Eddie Rayden 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,” he said. “Suddenly I was standing outside the house I hadn’t been in for over 80 years.”
The concept of reminiscence therapy dates back to 1963. At the time, many psychiatrists of the day discouraged anything that seemed to live in the past, but Robert Butlerwho went on to found the National Institute of Aging, he argued that older people could derive therapeutic value from putting their lives into perspective. Since then, psychologists have increasingly recommended the use of old wedding videos or favorite childhood foods as tools to help older people, including those with dementia. Experts say that Older people who often worry about the decline of short-term memory often find comfort in reminiscing about their past, especially their younger days.
Over the past decade, faster and more powerful technology has made virtual reality increasingly realistic and has led to studies showing how older people can use it to relive important parts of their lives. In 2018, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that virtual reality reduced depression and isolation in older people. Other studies have suggested that virtual reality reminiscence improves morale, engagement, anxiety, and cognition by boosting mental activity, although it does not necessarily reverse cognitive decline.
Yet larger studies are still needed before everyone over the age of 75 wears a helmet. Dr. Jeremy Bailenson, director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory, is currently conducting a clinical trial in 12 states 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.”
Today, seniors can pay companies for virtual reality headsets and to access a library of virtual experiences, many of which are designed for reminiscence therapy. They can also participate individually or in group sessions.
No prescriptions are needed and there are usually more participants than virtual headsets. Caregivers and researchers said they began to see benefits after several sessions over a month or two. Stephen Eatman, vice president of Sunshine Retirement Living, which runs Central Parke, said society’s use of antipsychotics decreased by 70% among 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 tours of flamenco, ragtime, and classical music venues, with musicians and actors dressed as they were in those days.
But users aren’t limited to “pre-packaged” nostalgic 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 senior’s life that can be transformed into realms of virtual reality.
Dorothy Yu, a business consultant from Weston, Massachusetts, decided to convert the streets around the University of Missouri campus into virtual reality so her father could see the buildings where he had taught. Today, as a resident of Maplewood Senior Living in Massachusetts, in his mid-90s, he can look back with pride on the work he did there, both during session and after.
“I’ve never seen such a reaction to this technology,” said Brian Geyser, vice president of Maplewood, which now offers virtual reality in all 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 your eyes are covered or have trouble understanding the purpose of strapping a machine to your facesaid Park.
To reduce these risks, Sunshine Retirement limits virtual reality activities to certain rooms where seniors can safely use the technology. As well they avoid showing those places that could trigger traumatic memoriesEatman said, but people’s reactions are hard to predict.
Most suppliers also limit VR reminiscence sessions to 45 minutes, although even with this duration they can cause dizziness and headaches, especially with certain medications. Virtual reality headsets may also be too heavy for some older people’s necks or fail to accommodate hearing and visual impairments.
Another downside: VR can isolate you socially. Traditionally, reminiscence therapy has encouraged groups of older adults to bond with each other and with caregivers through special memories. “If someone puts the helmet on, people around them are blocked,” Dr. Lazar said.
The Iona Washington Home Center in the southeast of the US capital is trying to solve this problem by projecting the virtual reality experiences of seniors on a 2D screen for others to view and discuss. The center, run by a non-profit organization, received its VR headsets through a current government grant for nursing homes. “People here don’t have a lot of money,” said program specialist Keith Jones. “Most of them have never seen the world.” When taking 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, Santa Barbara, studied virtual reality and dementia and now research 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 toured their 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 know the house we had and the neighborhood. It was my childhood. It brought back wonderful memories.”
Since the death of Rayden’s husband in 2019, she has struggled with sadness and loneliness. Until now, virtual reality has allowed her to take her son to Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway, where she had spent a fishing vacation with her husband. “He liked to fish,” he 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 loved ones. “They remember what it’s like to love being with their parent,” he said.