Color & Control:

Virtual Reality for geriatric care

By William Y. W. Leung and Kathy J. Yang

For many of us, the term “technology” is connected to younger generations. But why is that? Why do we automatically associate technology with young users and not older adults? For older adults it has been shown to lessen physical pain, let people visit familiar places and learn new things. It can also help reduce the isolation that comes from decreased mobility.

VR is a form of computer technology that completely replaces the user’s immediate surroundings with a virtual environment. The virtual environment can be made to look like anything, from realistic scenery created using real images of places around the world, to more cartoon-like and imaginary environments.

VR technology can be applied in many ways, and can benefit both younger and older users. However, the main focus of VR technology tends to fall on gaming applications for younger generations, while its potential for older users is often overlooked.

At the Yee Hong Centre, we recognize that technology can have many benefits for seniors. We understand that while seniors are interested in learning how to use new technologies they face several barriers to this, many of which stem from misconceptions and negative attitudes in our society about seniors and technology use. With this in mind, the Yee Hong Centre has created the VR for Seniors (VRS) Program. The aim of this program is to provide seniors with a safe space in which they can come together to learn and experience the benefits of this technology in their daily living.

How does VR work, and what are its applications?

When an individual uses VR, their immediate surroundings are replaced by a virtual environment. Essentially, this is accomplished using computer imaging technology and a VR headset. The computer-generated images, which are often three-dimensional, are projected through a set of lenses in the VR headset. The user’s positioning in the physical world is continuously tracked, and the projected images are simultaneously repositioned to reflect this movement in the virtual world. Many VR systems also include controllers that allow the user to interact with the virtual environment and the objects within it. As a result users are able to participate in a variety of activities, such as competing against a robot opponent in a round of virtual table tennis, or exploring normally inaccessible environments such as the vast expanse of outer space.

What can VR do for older adults?

It’s generally agreed that physical activity benefits everyone, and particularly important as we age. However, it is not always easy to find the motivation to exercise. VR is a great tool that can be used to achieve this motivation. There are many VR applications that simulate popular sports such as golf or basketball. These applications encourage the user to move in a way that replicates the actions required when playing the actual sport, thus encouraging body movement. And because these games are fun and engaging, users might not even realize that they are exercising and may be more inclined to engage in continued use. Moreover, VR allows the user to exercise from the comfort of their own home rather than visiting a gym—an added benefit for those who cannot easily get outside.

Given that essentially any environment can be virtually recreated, VR can also serve as a form of cognitive stimulation for older adults. Many VR experiences let the user virtually visit different places and reminisce or “travel” to new places that they have only dreamt of seeing. It is easy to understand how seniors would find virtual world travel highly appealing considering that, for many, long-distance voyages are no longer something they can manage.

Many VR applications can serve as a form of creative expression by transforming the space around them into a 360-degree canvas. With a VR controller, users can draw pictures, write words or just scribble in a virtual environment. There are no rules and no limit as to how much users can draw or write, and there are a variety of different brush types and colours that can be used. Applications such as these do not require any pens or paper, allowing older adults to express their creativity without worry. Some even find VR controllers easier and more comfortable to hold than a thin pencil.

So where is it?

Given all the possibilities and benefits that technologies can bring to seniors, it is reasonable to ask why there are such low rates of technology use among older adults. The unfortunate reality is that, because of misconceptions within our society, technology tends to be developed and marketed with a younger audience in mind. These misconceptions suggest that seniors cannot keep up with technological advancements and are not interested in learning new skills. Many do not recognize the older generation’s willingness and ability to use technology and, as a result, technological advances are not being developed and offered in a way that is accessible and supportive of older adults’ needs and characteristics.

Yee Hong understands that seniors are capable of learning new forms of technology, but are seldom provided the opportunity to do so in a safe and supportive environment. The VRS Program recognizes that while older adults have the interest and ability to learn to use newer forms of technology, there are various physical and psychological barriers, such as mobility and self-doubt, that make learning more difficult. The VRS Program works to address these barriers and support older adults in learning to use VR technology, and to challenge the misconceptions around seniors’ technology use.ϖ

William Y. W. Leung has a master of social work from the University of Toronto and is the program manager of the Programs & Services Development Department at the Yee Hong Centre.

Kathy J. Yang has been developing and expanding the VRS Program at the Yee Hong Centre since completing her undergraduate studies at the University of Guelph-Humber.

The Yee Hong Centre serves more than 26,000 individuals annually, and has four long-term care homes with 805 beds.

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