05 Jul 2016

VR and the Elderly: Where do they fit in a virtual world?

Virtual reality (VR) is currently a whir of hype and ‘shiny new toys’. The frenzy surrounding the digital realms of the virtual world is very much buzzing around the possibilities of creating, gaming and essentially living in a simulated biosphere. Ostensibly, the thought of virtual reality (VR) is likely to induce images of youth, gaming and the fast paced action of thrilling VR trends that set the hearts of millennials racing. Yet, stripping away the mania surrounding developments in VR leaves us with the possibility to create realistic environments and an immersion experience. Leaving the question open as to whether ‘experience’ has an age limit?

Some VR companies don’t think so. Notably, VR programmes are in some cases being marketed towards the elderly, as well as those living with demobilising conditions. Dr. Sonya Kim’s Aloha VR programme aims to target this unexpected audience using relaxing environments to provide an alternative to watching TV or create a perhaps much needed change of scenery.

VR is characteristically fashioned for a younger generation, using games, puzzles and often energetic movement, meaning Dr. Kim’s clients would very likely be overwhelmed by such unfamiliar conditions. However, by using a programme void of a storyline which presents its user with only scenery, this VR programme creates an environment of safety and belonging, a concept particularly significant when working with those who may feel lonely. Kim herself stated that she wants her clients to “feel found again”.

A number of clinical research papers have already highlighted positive outcomes of using VR in managing anxiety, chronic pain and depression, as well as issues present amongst the elderly, especially those who suffering from dementia. In essence, although currently most people view VR as the ultimate gaming experience, the technology could also benefit the elderly by combatting health issues and loneliness.

Developments are being made to enable people in elder care to view 360-degree film events perhaps of something as simple as a family meal, yet making them feel immersed in the moment they may have missed otherwise. Why should those who cannot experience the world for themselves be excluded from the virtual world we are also creating? Expanding the world of virtual reality for the elderly could ultimately reduce isolation and bridge the gap between VR and the rest of the world.

Although, one 103-year-old VR user aptly quipped: “You know, when you get to this age, I think you’ve seen everything”.