Virtual Reality Helps Seniors With Dementia Get Back on Track

Posted October 6th, 2017 at 11:56 am (UTC-5)
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A senior resident at Maplewood Senior Living experiences virtual reality with a Rendever VR headset. (Maplewood Senior Living)

A senior resident at Maplewood Senior Living experiences virtual reality with a Rendever VR headset. (Maplewood Senior Living)

Virtual reality (VR) is helping seniors with cognitive and physical impairments express themselves and experience the outside world. But its use in therapy is far outpacing research, which has yet to determine how VR affects the brain in the long-term.

Residents at Maplewood Senior Living, assisted-living communities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Ohio, are typically in their 80s or 90s, with cognitive disorders, chronic medical conditions, or mobility constraints.

One resident, Olympia, struggles with dementia. People with dementia often get “agitated or upset,” said Brian Geyser, Maplewood’s Vice President of Clinical Innovation and Population Health. They obsess over a single, frustrating thought and can’t let go.

A lover of horses, Olympia joined 10-15 other residents when Maplewood first introduced VR for group events and therapy a few months ago. When she put her headset on, she found herself immersed in a 360 degree-world of wild horses.

The effect was calming, said Geyser. Distraction and redirection, and reminiscence therapies help people with dementia forget troubling thoughts and reduce their anxiety and agitation. With a tool like Rendever’s VR headset, they can go on a virtual African safari or take a stroll down memory lane.

In one case, a woman with dementia and an anxious look on her face, had a virtual tour of her childhood home, thanks to Google Earth technology. “She was able to tell us all about the house that she lived in,” said Geyser.

A half-hour later, he said she had “this peaceful look on her face.” And when he asked her about the experience, she said, ‘That was just a miracle.'”

Geyser said he is “seeing positive impact across the board” with the use of virtual reality.

Micky has expressive aphasia – a partial loss of verbal language. Her speech is garbled and she is frustrated with her inability to express herself. During her first virtual experience, she found herself surrounded by puppies.

“She just lit up,” he said. “And she said …, ‘Oh my God, look at the puppies.’” It was the first time in months that she had said anything meaningful that people could understand.

“The cool thing about Rendever,” added Geyser, “is it allows us to use VR both on an individual basis, but even more importantly, in group settings,” where participants physically interact with the virtual environment and with each other instead of watching television for hours.

One of Maplewood's residents uses a Rendever VR headset to experience virtual reality in a group session. (Maplewood Senior Living)

One of Maplewood’s residents uses a Rendever VR headset to experience virtual reality in a group session. (Maplewood Senior Living)

VR for seniors

Rendever designed its platform for seniors based on reminiscence therapy and a graduate study by a team member about the benefits of VR experiences versus TV watching.

After two weeks, the study found the participants’ “perceived overall health improved significantly,” said Rendever cofounder and CEO Kyle Rand. “And they also felt improvements in their social and physical well-being.”

The study was just a pilot, but Rand said Rendever spends a “good portion of time talking with researchers and looking into positive quality of life and health outcomes.”

Along those lines, Rendever focuses on providing seniors with positive content. And its videos are processed in a way that stabilizes motion sickness, common in virtual reality.

Maplewood had no reports of motion sickness during its trials, said Geyser. But some participants felt as if they were about to fall because, in virtual reality, they cannot see their feet. They knew they were seated, however, with their hands on a table, so they don’t fall forward.

But their initial reaction was “astounding,” he said, with residents “saying things like, ‘how do you do this? How is it even possible? This is like magic.'”

Outpacing research

Virtual reality has been in use since the early 1990s, helping treat phobias and war-related trauma. Far outpacing scientific research, there is little or no data to show how it affects the brain or if it has long-term harmful effects.

But UCLA neurophysicist Mayank Mehta and his team have been investigating how VR environments affect the brain.

Earlier studies showed that “more than half of hippocampal neurons shut down in virtual reality and other neurons have corrupted neural maps [i.e., spatial awareness],” he noted. And the distinct rhythm generated by the Hippocampus was “significantly altered” in the virtual environment.

It is unclear why the neurons shut down. The Hippocampus is a key part of the brain for spatial mapping, learning, memory and emotions. It has a distinct rhythm that leaves long-lasting effects on the subject’s learning and memory processes when disrupted, said Mehta.

Maplewood’s Geyser is aware of the need for more scientific research. But he would like to learn more about VR’s therapeutic potential for senior populations and people who otherwise might not engage in physical therapy.

“For someone who’s 85-years old and … has limited mobility, to actually just stand up from a sitting position is exercise for them,” he said.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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