Imagine being able to visit Paris at a moment’s notice without having to pack a suitcase or snagging a front-row seat to a Broadway performance of The Lion King free of charge. That’s the world that 70-something Roberta Nadel lives in, thanks to a company called MyndVR.
Nadel, who spent her career in fashion, is a resident at the Upper East Side Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in New York City. She gets to enjoy these cultural experiences from inside the facility, which began offering virtual reality (VR) sessions designed specifically for older adults last fall.
“It’s very uplifting and educational — all that you can ask for,” says Nadel, who describes herself as a “very cultural person” who has always loved travel, theater, opera and ballet.
Lauren Baxter, creative art specialist with the activities department at the center, facilitates the VR experiences every Tuesday morning, or upon special request in residents’ rooms. She helps them put on the headsets and explains how the experience works. Often, they’re confused at the beginning, Baxter says, but once their eyes adjust to the headsets and they choose a video to watch, they are transformed.
“I try not to talk to them and just let them be as they experience it,” says Baxter. “You want them to be in the moment, forgetting where they are.”
Developing Virtual Reality for Older Adults
Silicon Valley vet Chris Brickler, CEO and co-founder of Texas-based MyndVR, came up with the concept about two-and-a-half years ago. Noting that 10,000 people are retiring each day, he set out to fill a void in the VR industry.
“[In the past] VR user interfaces have been engineered for millennials and gamers,” says Brickler. “We set out to reimagine a very senior-friendly interface and content streaming platform so we can offer them this world of immersive content.”
Throughout 2017, Brickler and a team of scientists at The University of Texas at Dallas conducted trials with more than 300 people ages 60 to 100, in four states. They were looking to confirm that VR would be a medium this population would adopt, and also to determine which types of content would be most suitable to them. Based on the results of the trial, through which feedback was overwhelmingly positive, they created content that’s a mix of recreational and therapeutic.
“One might think that a trip to Paris or a video that’s focused on pets might be recreational, but those things can turn therapeutic very fast, especially if they reach the right memories of past experiences,” says Brickler. “This medium has shown promise to really have an impact on this level.”
Currently, MyndVR works with about 30 senior living operators across the country. The company produces 20 percent of the video content themselves, and outsources the rest through a partnership with New York-based VR aggregator Littlstar. This allows MyndVR to stream fresh content each month — videos ranging from an artist performing Frank Sinatra songs in a nightclub to visiting a pet store full of puppies.
It will also soon be launching a VR program for older adults who are aging in place, with an all-in-one VR headset available for purchase or subscription that could be administered by caregivers or family members; pricing has yet to be determined.
Therapeutic Benefits of Virtual Reality
Brickler is quick to point out that more research is needed to be able to prove any therapeutic benefits virtual reality could offer older adults. However, he believes VR has enormous potential to help with side effects of many health conditions.
“Agitation is a big side effect that comes with Alzheimer’s and dementia,” says Brickler, “and if we can use VR in ways to help calm people down, then the science starts to work in a more medical way.”
He also notes “the enormous joy factor” that the VR experiences created during MyndVR’s 2017 pilot, helping residents feel like they were getting outside the walls of their community — if only for a few minutes at a time.
Over the next 18 months, MyndVR is helping to facilitate a research coalition with major universities around the country to study the potential positive impact of VR on the aging mind.
Minnesota-based Visual, another virtual reality company, has also conducted research on the impact of VR on older adults, though its WellnessVR platform. It worked with about 25 residents of Ebenezer, a senior living community in Minnesota, guiding them through 10-minute VR sessions twice a week for five weeks.
After the study, 90 percent of participants reported feeling more relaxed and rated their well-being higher than before.
Working Toward a Brighter Future
While that study was done on a very small scale, Chuck Olsen, co-founder and CEO of Visual, says it’s only the beginning of what could be done with VR in the future to greatly improve quality of life for older adults with limited mobility, in particular.
“Seniors face a lot of loss and limitations — losing friends, mobility, memories and the ability to live the lives they used to live,” says Olsen. “We brought a headset to a man in his apartment to experience hiking in Montana, and he was in tears because he hadn’t seen that landscape in years.”
WellnessVR is on a smaller scale than MyndVR, since Olsen does nearly all the filming himself. The company is gearing up for national expansion, however, and plans to soon launch a “VR club” experience that will let older adults experience VR videos in a group setting.
Yet the ultimate goal for both companies is shared: virtual reality for a better reality.
“We’re not thinking of VR just as pure escapism,” says Olsen, “but how we can use it to benefit people’s lives.”
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