Virtual Reality Brings Joy to People in Assisted-Living Facilities

Studies show improved emotional health among residents who watch VR images

March 26, 2021 - On a recent afternoon, Frank James, a resident at Commonwealth Senior Living in Charlottesville, Va., snared a front-row seat to the Broadway production of “Aladdin”—without ever leaving the facility.

The 91-year-old traveled to the performance via virtual reality. Using a set of goggles from Dallas-based MyndVR, he got a 360-degree view of the stage and theater, letting him move his head to see the show—and the space around him—from any angle, as if he were actually there.

“Claire just loved that music,” he says, referring to his late wife of 65 years. “Seeing these shows again is invigorating…. It just takes your mind off things like the lockdown.”

Once limited to gaming, VR is being embraced by an increasing number of long-term-care communities, which are turning to the devices to improve wellness and quality of life for this growing population. The caregivers say that letting residents roam through virtual environments such as distant cities or the outdoors helps them combat an array of age-related conditions—such as loneliness, depression and perhaps even cognitive deficits.

Striking results

VR has gotten a big boost during the pandemic, as care-facility residents faced new restrictions on visitors and activities. Over the long term, the technology could prove useful for treating a rapidly aging population that is retiring at the rate of 10,000 a day and living longer than ever: By 2040, the life expectancy will rise to 85 from 79.4 in 2015, the Census Bureau projects.

Researchers say it isn’t clear yet why the technology works so well at helping seniors. But over the past three years, a handful of studies have shown the technology’s positive effects on the emotional health of older adults.

For instance, one field study done in 2018 by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that almost 39% of a group of assisted-living residents reported “better perceived overall health” after watching VR images related to travel and relaxation. For another group who watched the same images on TV, the figure was only 14.3%, according to Chaiwoo Lee, one of the paper’s co-authors.

The results were even more impressive when it came to perceived emotional well-being: 29.7% for the VR group reported an improvement compared with 4.8% of the TV participants, Dr. Lee says. A total of 63 assisted-living residents, with a median age of 88, participated in the study.

Another study, from researchers at the University of California San Francisco, looked at 48 older adults with typical cognitive capabilities for their age, an average of 68.7 years old. Those who played a specially developed VR game over a four-week period showed an improvement in long-term memory—back to a level similar to younger adults. But those who played the game on a tablet didn’t see the same results, according to the study, published in Nature in January.

There is still a lot of work to be done regarding VR as a therapeutic intervention for declining memory, says Peter Wais, a cognitive neuroscientist at UCSF and lead author of the study. For example, it is unclear how the gains should be attributed between effects from the “richness of detail of VR or the movement required to participate,” he says.

Here’s how VR works: The user chooses a destination and is quickly transported to a 360-degree digital reality through the lenses of the headset. The goggles detect even the slightest head movement, providing a panoramic view of the new surroundings, as well as detailed physical sensations of being there. You can hear the street noise as you sit at a cafe in Paris or sense the rocking of your gondola as you drift down the Grand Canal in Venice.

Cheaper, more portable systems—with higher-quality audio and better r