There are many new, cutting-edge medical technologies associated with elder care as well as innovative therapies that are focused on enhancing and lengthening the lives of seniors. One such technology that positively affects a senior’s quality of life is the prospect of using virtual reality.
Virtual reality technology has been used in recent years for different types of care, including pain management, treatment of PTSD, and to help those with concussion or memory loss. Compelling articles outline how these therapeutic avenues can improve care while engaging seniors through technology to improve their lives.
How can virtual reality help the physical movement for seniors?
The largest cause of injury-related mortality in seniors is from falls. In fact, in the U.S. nearly 10,000 people die due to falling related-injury every year. Falls are very common, affecting nearly half of all people over 65 years old.
To lower the risk of falling, therapists recommend regular exercise like walking or yoga as well as balance training. Today, however, virtual reality tools are being employed to help people build better balance. Training through virtual reality navigation has improved general balance and helped create fun and engaging ways for seniors to exercise.
Physical performance enhancement through virtual reality has to do with the concept of utilizing virtual reality gaming to lend amusement to the task that otherwise might seem tedious. With the gamification of aspects of health care like physical therapy exercises, virtual reality users have seen significant positive health outcomes.
What can virtual reality do for pain management?
Virtual reality is not just a way to help maintain balance or keep people physically active. Physicians are increasingly using immersive digital environments to distract patients from chronic as well as severe pain issues. It seems that engagement in immersive environments allows patients to focus less on external stimuli, including pain.
In some cases, patients have been given tasks in virtual environments to keep them concentrating on following directions in games. This allows them to refocus on something other than pain reception. Other patients suffering pain were led through regular episodes involving relaxing virtual environments, like a simulated helicopter ride or guided relaxation on a beach environment. During these trials, their pain scores dropped dramatically, even more than those that were given similar relaxation techniques in normal surroundings.
For some, this allows the possibility of avoiding potentially harmful pharmaceuticals that might otherwise be used for pain treatment. This is not only positive for physical health but because these drugs can be expensive, virtual reality can be financially beneficial as well.
However, medical professionals are still not fully certain of what it is about virtual reality that allows patients to experience a lessening in pain while using this technology. The continued study into the mechanism of this therapeutic will surely lead to improved and more effective methods of deployment.
What does virtual reality do for memory?
Most people likely know about the concept of virtual reality and how it uses immersive video technology as well as a headset to “transport” the user into another comprehensive digital space. However, what is less well known is how this transposition into an imagined digital world affects memory sensors in the brain. According to Betsy Eble, a Senior User Experience Designer at Lenovo, “interacting with a new environment in 360-degree video triggers more memory-writing areas of the brain than does simply observing a familiar environment like a room in your home.”
This means that virtual reality could potentially help with aspects of memory and memory loss more effectively even than a visit to a physical location. This is particularly useful for sufferers of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Building virtual environments that are familiar to patients with dementia have had the effect of calming agitation and reintroducing memories. MIT graduates Dennis Lally and Reed Hayes have been building a related technology called Rendever, a program that works to recreate familiar landscapes for seniors. They have even gone to the point of finding ways to recreate patient's homes and surroundings. The effect on patients has been dramatic, creating comforting emotions for many sufferers of dementia.
How does virtual reality affect the quality of life?
Isolation is one major issue for the elderly and some point to this as a large-scale associative cause of mortality. Many seniors suffer from depression as a result of mobility impairments, physical limitations and lack of energy. This depression can lead directly to health issues including an increase in stress, heart disease, and sleep loss. Virtual reality technology can help seniors combat feelings of isolation by creating the feeling of travel to another place or even time.
For example, Mynd virtual reality has been utilizing a 360-degree camera to create integrated and interactive experiences to evoke memories and positive emotion. In one instance, they used virtual reality to give patients a feeling of connection by placing them virtually in a big band era ballroom, complete with actors in 50s attire and a band playing familiar Frank Sinatra tunes. For those who long to go back to places they recognize from their youth, but don’t have the mobility, virtual reality can allow people to return to their old neighborhoods or important locations from their lives.
It is possible to introduce relaxing vistas like beaches or mountain ranges that can, for a time, remove people from more humdrum reality. At the same time, it allows people to have the feeling of being in the audience at a concert or to walk the halls of an art exhibition. As smart technology develops, it has become possible to digitally bring elderly relatives to live events that they otherwise could not physically attend like weddings or family reunions.
How can virtual reality aid early detection of memory loss?
Virtual reality is also being employed by researchers to detect Alzheimer’s and dementia earlier than ever before. With high-risk patients as young as 18 years old, doctors have been able to begin to work to detect Alzheimer’s disease and find ways to begin treatment.
In a study done by German scientists, patients were asked to navigate a maze in a virtual reality environment. Those with a higher risk of Alzheimer’s tended to traverse the maze in a way that was different from those who showed a lower propensity for the disease. The cause of this is likely due to a difference in a particular kind of brain cell involved in spatial navigation. Spatial navigation is a recognized indicator of memory loss, leading scientists to realize a connection between performance in the virtual reality game and a higher risk of Alzheimer’s, even if the player showed no other symptoms.
By virtual reality technology, medical practitioners and patients have found benefits involving a better understanding of brain function. A game called Sea Hero Quest, created by Glitchers and Deutsche Telekom, the University College of London, the University of East Anglia and Alzheimer’s Research UK is designed to directly interface with patients, engaging them with puzzles and maps to address spatial navigation concerns. Millions of players have given them close to 2,000 years' worth of data to work from when assessing aspects of their research.
While early detection cannot currently change a future diagnosis, it can give those that are at a higher risk of Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia time to research and invest in strategies that actively combat the effects of memory loss, perhaps lessening the impact of the disease in the future.
While virtual reality technologies and their effects on the brain are still being researched actively, studies have already strongly pointed to many benefits that the technology can have for seniors, particularly when it comes to their health and memory. From creating new and familiar environments to improving emotional and physical health, virtual reality seems to have the ability to revitalize seniors in many positive ways. It’s just one example of how new technologies are being implemented and used to revolutionize the field of senior care around the world.