Could VR Be the Solution Socially Isolated Seniors Are Looking For?

Virtual reality can be a lot more than just a new-fangled way to entertain yourself. It can also be used as a therapy for treating symptoms of apathy, anxiety, and depression associated with degenerative disease. In this way, VR technology can play an effective role in mitigating the effects of social isolation on seniors during lockdown. What follows are two VR projects designed with this group in mind.

Television producer Frédérick Béland first developed an interest in the therapeutic applications of virtual reality for personal reasons. “My mother was suffering from an advanced degenerative disease and she wasn’t responding well to music therapy,” he said. “In discussing the situation with her counsellor, we wondered if a virtual reality experience might have a better calming effect on her, and, since I had the equipment, we decided to give it a try.”

The story actually goes back two years earlier when studies were beginning to show that virtual reality could alleviate symptoms in patients suffering from degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. How so? By using VR in sensory stimulation and recollection strategies to rekindle happier times stored in the patients’ memories.

Béland’s original idea was to film a virtual reality experience at the family cottage where his mother had so many fond memories. Unfortunately, she passed away before he could get the project underway. But the idea took hold. He and his business partner, Jean-François Éthier, founded Monarq Lab – using the image of a fleeing butterfly – and began a collaboration with Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal geronto-psychiatrist Marie-Andrée Bruneau to develop a virtual reality therapeutic protocol for people suffering from degenerative disease.

At the same time, they launched their own VR pilot project for seniors in a Montreal long-term care facility. “Our goal is to create customized content,” Éthier said. “For example, we had a former truck driver with a passion for sports cars virtually drive a convertible along California’s magnificent roadways. We also took a wheelchair-bound resident on a virtual hovercraft glide around her facility. The experience was so stunningly real that she was sure her wheelchair would get caught in a narrow passageway!”

Initial reaction has been extremely positive. “When you see someone actually shed tears of joy over a VR film that takes them away from the four beige walls of their care facility, where they’ve been stuck for the past two years, I can tell you that it’s a pretty overwhelming experience for the content producer as well,” Béland said.

The project was showing great promise until work ground to a halt due to strict lockdown measures imposed on long-term care facilities during the first, and then the second, COVID wave.

As things stand, both producers keep in touch with their long-term care contacts and say they’re ready to do whatever it takes to adapt their service to ensure its safety from a health point of view. “Seniors are more in need of this kind of experience than ever with the extra anxiety the second wave is generating,” Éthier said.

While waiting to get the green light to return to long-term care facilities, Monarq Lab continues to develop a content library that’s certain to resonate with seniors. “Among other projects, we want to create a virtual walk in the forest on Mount Royal because it has such significance to many of the residents of the facility where our pilot project was launched,” he said.

The Virtual American Dream

South of the border, the Equity Lab non-profit organization has been successfully providing a virtual reality program for seniors for the past few years and with the same therapeutic results the Monarq Lab project produced. “Our program gives vulnerable seniors the opportunity to enjoy virtual travel experiences as a way of alleviating the social isolation, loneliness, and chronic depression they’re subject to,” said Equity Lab founder Alexandra Ivanovitch.

Before the pandemic hit, thousands of seniors were enjoying up to 30 Equity Lab VR experiences a month through a network of retirement homes and community centres in Florida’s Miami-Dade County. “We took a survey when we started out that guided us in building a library of immersive experiences likely to make the travel dreams of most seniors come true. These included visits to the European Capitals, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, the Northern Lights, and Going on Safari,” Ivanovitch said.

When the crisis struck, Ivanovitch was not only able to fully maintain her service, but she also began immediately to make Equity Lab VR experiences available in three neighbouring states. “There’s been accelerated demand from seniors for our VR program due to the more restrictive lockdown measures put in place because of the pandemic,” she said. “This is perfectly understandable since the measures themselves cause a veritable epidemic of loneliness.”

The service has been carefully adapted to meet all health directives. Users are provided with their own sterilized headsets and the nursing staff is trained to manage the virtual reality hardware and software. “With VR technology, seniors are no longer prisoners trapped inside four walls. They can instantly teleport themselves to wherever they want to go, discover new cultures, contemplate the wonders of the world, and reconnect with nature, the plants and the animals,” she said.

Faced with a dark uncertain winter of health-safety challenges, coupled with the adverse effects of lockdowns, one can only hope for a way to make VR projects accessible to socially isolated seniors to improve their lot in Quebec, Canada, and around the world. Giving them a way to break free from a solitary existence and enjoy a virtual reprieve, with a caring companion as their guide, would appear to be just what the doctor ordered.


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Philippe Jean Poirier
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