Harnessing the power of virtual reality to reduce social isolation amid a global pandemic

March 17, 2020

As COVID-19, or coronavirus, continues to spread across our country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised “social distancing” and that those who are deemed higher-risk persons “avoid crowds” and “stay home” to further reduce your risk of being exposed.

 

The Trump administration is “strongly advising that nursing homes for the elderly suspend all medically unnecessary visits.” And with no vaccine in sight, this could be a lengthy containment.

 

I believe this is the right approach in protecting the physical health of our seniors. However, these social distancing measures will likely have a negative impact on the already vulnerable residents of these communities, exacerbating feelings of loneliness, and potentially causing isolation-induced depression. Depression, especially for the elderly, “can be especially hard and even dangerous,” according to Susan London, LMSW, director of social work at Shore View Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

 

According to one report in the National Academies of Sciences, “Social isolation has been associated with a significantly increased risk of premature mortality from all causes,” including a “50 percent increased risk of developing dementia,” and a “32 percent increased risk of stroke.”

 

For many seniors living in skilled nursing facilities and care communities, being isolated can be truly frightening. And now, due to this pandemic, it means no visits from the outside world — no friends, no family, no window to the world outside their four walls. Their front door has just been locked.

But virtual reality (VR) is changing that.

 

According to Dr. Walter Greenleaf, a neuroscientist working at Stanford University and a leading authority in the field of medical virtual reality technology, “VR technology can address many of the difficult problems inherent in caring for our elders. Today, we are using VR technology to help reduce the feelings of isolation and loneliness — this is making a big difference — not just for those seniors living in care centers, but also for those who are living independently. Our seniors often feel disconnected, bored and lonely — virtual reality technology provides a powerful way to attend to this problem.”

 

Companies like ours have dedicated our work to developing a platform that harnesses the power of VR for senior living. It enables seniors to “travel” and enjoy a world of experiences they otherwise wouldn’t be able to enjoy. Our content library, the largest among VR companies geared towards senior living, includes 100+ unique travel destinations, allowing seniors to visit places like Rome, Antarctica, Hong Kong and even a virtual trip down Route 66. In addition to travel, we have many other VR activities, such as skydiving, scuba diving, seeing Broadway shows, attending music concerts, visiting art galleries, and so much more.

 

Human beings are social creatures. We thrive on our interpersonal relationships and our in-person interactions. Having that taken away for an extended period of time can cause irreparable harm to our physical and mental health. But with basic sanitary practices, VR can be a boost to seniors — encouraging social interaction, reducing levels of anxiety and isolation, and improving the overall quality of life.

 

During unprecedented times like this, it’s important to do everything we can to lift the spirits of our seniors and help them improve their quality of life while outside visitors are discouraged from visiting. It’s imperative that seniors are given the ability to transcend their four walls and reclaim the world this global pandemic has placed outside their grasp.  They have earned and they deserve it. 

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