Residential care homes offer virtual walks down memory lane

LONDON: Communal areas in care homes are usually the setting for bingo games or hours of daytime television.

Now visitors to retirement homes across America may be surprised to find the residents wearing virtual reality (VR) headsets as experts use the technology to fight loneliness and alleviate anxiety for people with dementia.

Studies have shown that “reminiscence therapy”, which includes viewing childhood pictures or listening to one’s favourite music, can boost mood and it is hoped that VR will provide a more immersive experience.

Alone or in group sessions, elderly users can take a virtual stroll down the street on which they lived as a child, or visit a favourite holiday destination.

For four years Dr Jeremy Bailenson, the director of Stanford University’s virtual human interaction lab, has been working with MyndVR, a company that specialises in reminiscence therapy, to put hundreds of headsets into care homes.

MyndVR said the process reduced loneliness and isolation while boosting happiness and peace of mind.

Bailenson agreed and said: “The efficacy has been shown in terms of helping the wellbeing of seniors.”

He said one surprise was the ease with which elderly users adapted to the headsets.

Unlike smartphones, which confuse some older people, he said VR was easier to get to grips with. “If you want to look at an object, you simply turn your head the same way you would in the real world,” he said. “If you want to get closer to an object, you move your chair closer to that object and it gets bigger.”

Bailenson said: “The headsets are now inexpensive and comfortable and can create experiences to help seniors with memory and wellbeing and social connection. The question now is what is the type of content that we’re going to give them that is clinically valid, that’s going to accelerate care and wellbeing? I’m optimistic.”