The population of older persons (age 65 and older) in the world is growing at an unprecedented rate, according to a 2015 report on aging. In the United States, 14.5% of the nation’s population are age 65 or older thanks to the baby boomers, who are all grown up. Worldwide, 8.5% of people are over age 65 and the number of elderly persons is expected to nearly double by 2050, going from 48 million to 88 million.
It is anticipated that the increase of seniors in developed nations will increase financial demands on our health care systems. The occurrence of chronic illness, cancer, dementia, injuries incurred from falls, sensory impairment, depression, obesity and diabetes are just some of the conditions or problems expected to increase as the average age of our population increases.
The statistics can be daunting if we simply continue to approach care of the elderly as we have in the past. But what if there were other options? Rather than expecting people to develop problems and then deciding how to treat them, what if we had a technology that could help deter or alleviate some of the problems associated with aging bodies before they became a health issue?
Virtual reality can’t solve every problem in the world, but it certainly has benefits that would reduce financial demands on the health care system while simultaneously improving the lives of elderly persons and their caregivers. This would, in turn, reduce the strain on society to keep up with increasing health care costs.
Check out some of the ways we could use VR to enhance life for our older population.
- When elderly individuals visit other countries, museums and historic sites, they not only enjoy the experiences, but they also improve their mental health.
- Inactivity is one of the common reasons for loss of functional abilities and self-care. Patients become immobile, which increases the risk for other complications. VR encourages people to be active.
- Activity through VR experiences not only increases muscle tone, it also helps the person maintain balance and thus the ability to walk.
- VR experiences encourage movement that increases both fine and gross motor skills.
- Experiences in VR stimulate the brain. It has been shown to increase memory.
- The immersive experience of virtual reality can be used in sensory therapy, music therapy, etc. to calm elderly patients with dementia, Alzheimer’s and other disorders that decrease mental function.
- People who are homebound can visit family and friends virtually. Through virtual reality, they can visit places they grew up and pass along more stories for the next generation.
- Older persons can develop friendships in online environments, potentially establishing positive relationships and reducing the risk of depression. Although estimates for serious episodes of depression among the elderly are pretty low, the percentage rises to 13.5% for older people who require home health care.
- Many conditions of aging are accompanied by pain. Virtual reality helps alleviate pain – without narcotics, which can cause additional complications, especially among older persons.
- VR can be used for rehabilitation – from falls, strokes, nerve disorders, etc.
- Just because their bodies are deteriorating doesn’t mean their minds are. Some older persons have fully functioning mental abilities. VR would allow patients to take classes, attend seminars, and experience other immersive, multisensory environments where they are fully stimulated and their brains are allowed to thrive despite the limitations of their physical bodies.
- Virtual reality can help people fulfill dreams that they were never able to fulfill while their physical bodies were still functional. This can provide them with an enjoyable experience and a sense of peace.
Honestly, the possibilities are endless. As a society, we must decide if we’re going to turn our backs on this awesome technology or embrace it. There seems to be an impression that virtual reality is for gamers or perhaps elite techies. That is far from actual reality.
If we want to prepare for the oncoming health care crisis as the population ages, we need to ensure the continued development of virtual reality and do what we can to help the general population understand the positive impact it could have on society as a whole. Anyone involved with senior care should familiarize themselves with VR and health care advocates need to recommend that every nursing facility have VR for their residents so they can enjoy and benefit from immersive experiences. Wise family members should invest in the technology for their parents or grandparents.
In regards to specific headsets for elderly persons, I would recommend the Oculus Go. While I definitely think an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive is necessary for gaming, research, and other activities that require more abilities in the virtual environment, the immersive experience needs to be as accessible as possible for elderly users. With the Go, you can invest $200 and they’d have a headset that allows them to enjoy immersive experiences without a huge investment and without needing a computer. The Go is a stand-alone experience with no additional equipment necessary.
As the world begins to see the many ways in which virtual reality can be used to improve quality of life, developers are creating more content and people are opening their imaginations to the possibilities that this technology can do more than initially anticipated.
Some companies are creating content or applications specifically for seniors at home or those in senior living communities. Here are some of the developers doing amazing work in virtual reality to improve the lives of this growing segment of our population.
Rather than using narcotics to treat moderate to severe pain, Firsthand Technology uses immersive virtual reality to reduce pain, relieve stress, and enhance healing. Not only is the pain relief more effective than narcotics, but VR has none of the pharmaceutical side effects associated with pain medications.
Reed Hayes and Dennis Lally formed the VR company Rendever in hopes of enriching the lives of isolated seniors. Their team, made up most of MIT students, built a company that allows seniors to experience adventure, ignite memories and enjoy experiences in immersive virtual environments.
A series of films specifically designed to benefit seniors was inspired by Jake Kahana, a New York based designer and film director. Bettvr With Age is partnered with companies like Rendever to improve the lives of seniors. Music and virtual reality simulations can jog memories, having a positive effect on the mind of seniors. In addition, these individuals miss everyday experiences such as museums, concerts or tours. Kahana’s films help seniors enjoy these experiences once again in a virtual environment.
Dr. Sonya Kim is trying to combat social isolation of the elderly via phone calls as well as immersive environments that will provide “happy place experiences.” When people interact with their world, they’re more likely to remain physically and mentally active and healthy.