LOS ANGELES - Seventy-five-year-old Eileen Higa loves to travel and has visited many countries, but she never got a chance to see the Indonesian island of Bali. After moving into Silverado Beverly Place, a memory care community in Los Angeles, she thought she would never have a chance to see exotic places again.
But on a sunny day before lunch, Higa’s dream came true, with virtual reality (VR). When she placed a VR headset over her eyes, the four walls around her disappeared, and she was transported to Bali, where a tour guide showed her key sites around the island.
“I like to travel, so for me, it's great,” Higa said.
VR also allowed her to pick from a list of other immersive content with 360-degree video. Choices included places to visit around the world, listening to concerts from a front row seat and embarking on more exhilarating adventures such a wingsuit flying experience.
“Each one (VR experience) is a new experience, especially, I've never done flying like that so that was really fun,” said Higa, who can even share a VR experience with her son, Kevin Higa, who can wear a separate headset at the same time.
“Just seeing it in my mom that when she does it, she is happy and excited. She likes it. She likes going places, so she gets to do that, and it's a cool thing,” Kevin Higa said.
Eileen Higa’s response to virtual reality is exciting for her son because it was his suggestion for his mother to move from her home to a memory care community for seniors affected by Alzheimer’s or other disorders caused by dementia.
“Increasingly over the last few years, noticing first minor memory issues and then bigger things and even bigger things,” said Kevin Higa, who remembered his mother getting increasingly isolated at home.
“A lot of concerns and a lot of worries with her living alone with the Alzheimer's and the dementia.”
Signs of promise with VR
Eileen Higa is not the only person who has experienced benefits after a session of virtual reality.
In a small pilot study with VR company MyndVR, a few participants felt dizzy, but others responded positively to the experience.
“It seemed like it improved their mood,” said Kim Butrum, a gerontological nurse practitioner and senior vice president for clinical services at Silverado. “We saw less depression, a little less anxiety later in the day.”
Researchers are looking into the benefits of virtual reality as a tool to fight isolation and loneliness linked to physical and mental conditions such as cognitive decline. Studies have found social isolation to be associated with a higher risk of mortality.
VR for seniors during the pandemic
Feelings of loneliness and social isolation could be exacerbated during the pandemic.
Older adults are believed to be at a higher risk of life-threatening complications if infected with COVID-19. As a result, many senior living facilities have been on lockdown, not allowing visitors inside and limiting activities in the facilities to protect the residents. MyndVR is donating VR headsets to senior living communities across the U.S., along with access to its library of content for a year to keep seniors engaged.
The communities see VR as a way of treating the symptoms of dementia without having to use antipsychotic drugs, which come with side effects including stiffness, a higher tendency of falling, abnormal movements and confusion.
Could VR improve quality of life for seniors? Butrum said the possibility is there. “We're not sure where it's (VR) going to lead, and that's why we're excited to be moving forward with this.
“Even to someone living on hospice, what if when they're in bed and maybe too frail to get up and participate in the life of the community, but that they could see somewhere they went with their loved one and a trip to Paris again. What would that do in terms of improving their quality of life? We do think we’re going to see impact.”
Eileen Higa liked her virtual reality experience because it allowed her to do an activity she otherwise would not be able to do.
Through the magic of VR, Higa can continue to experience new things and travel to exotic places in this next chapter of her life.