From dolphin swims to European bus rides, the good times are virtually back for these Queensland nursing-home residents.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it’s been tough living in a nursing home. The risk of getting sick from COVID, the isolation from friends and family, and staff shortages are all problems that have regularly entered the news cycle.
An Australian research team is trialling an unusual system that won’t fix any of these institutionalised problems, but might make nursing homes a little more enjoyable for residents – virtual-reality (VR) experiences.
“I thought it was wonderful,” says June Hackwood, a resident at Arcare Pimpama in Queensland. “I really felt as if I was swimming with the dolphins.”
While there’s been past research looking into whether VR in aged care can reduce apathy and improve mood, and into any potential problems that need to be overcome, the researchers working on the Transforming Aged Care with Virtual Reality project have focussed on how aged-care homes can integrate VR more generally.
“Particularly in these COVID times, we’ve got older people living in aged care, [and] they can’t have any visitors, they often can’t leave,” says Queensland University of Technology (QUT) design psychology researcher Evonne Miller.
“Now is the perfect time to use things like virtual reality so people can have those experiences without having to leave the four walls of the aged-care facility.”
So far, three aged-care homes in Queensland have been part of this project, with more in Victoria pushed back due to COVID restrictions but planned for later in the year.
Using a large, philanthropic grant from Meta (the company behind Facebook), the researchers purchased Meta Quest 2 headsets, and used mostly free programs such as Alcove VR, YouTube VR and even games to give the residents choice on what they might want to do.
“The whole premise was how can you get this to work in aged care,” says Simon Lowe, co-founder of The Ageing Revolution and one of the researchers on the ground.
“We had to tailor the hardware so it was easy to take on and off, by using a different strap. Then it was basically a mini design process of test it, try again, test again and try again. Particularly around people who have different mobility issues or different cognitive issues.”
Many residents were receptive to the experience, and some said they really enjoyed being able to take bus rides around London and Paris, or go swimming with dolphins.
“The first session we did at one of the centres, there were about eight people, and the next session was about 12 people,” says Leonie Sanderson, director of The Ageing Revolution.
“People were really excited to try VR and try different things. Ninety-something-year-old people doing skydiving in VR, or going diving on the Great Barrier Reef, or playing Fruit Ninja. Really, so many things.”
The researchers noted that there was no reported vertigo or dizziness by residents, although Sanderson suggests that might be because they limited the residents use of the machines to around 10 minutes each, before giving them a break and trying another experience.
All three homes were given one of the headsets at the end of the program to try to continue the activity without the team. Unfortunately, two of the homes have only used the headsets a handful of times over a three-month period.
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“Not as much as I would have hoped,” says Miller. “But there’s been a lot of issues with COVID and staff sicknesses. It means that VR needs to be integrated into the leisure programming of the facility [for this to work].”
One facility – Arcare Pimpama – has embraced the tech, purchasing more headsets and running multiple sessions a week.
This is in large part due to one of the resident managers, Vicki Cain, who has been a champion for the technology, especially for those who have dementia.
“You can definitely use it successfully for people with dementia – advanced dementia,” she says. “That to me has been the game changer.”
Hackwood is one of the dementia residents at Pimpama and has only good things to say about the VR systems. She remembered having a great time swimming with dolphins, but Cain had to remind her that she went on multiple experiences, including a bus ride through London.
“Some of the people with advanced dementia may not be able to manipulate the controls, but it doesn’t mean they still can’t go on the experience,” says Cain.
“Relatives of people with advanced dementia are shocked that they can tolerate the headsets and actually enjoy the technology.”
One of the advantages of VR over other forms of technology is that once you’re in the environment, it’s relatively intuitive, even for older people. While phones have lock screens, a variety of apps and a keyboard system that is not really intuitive, all that’s needed to enjoy the VR headset experience is to look around.
That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t issues still to be ironed out. The headsets the team used were Meta-branded, meaning each headset needed to be connected to a Facebook account at the start of the program. This is looking to be switched off, which would allow greater accessibility for the residents.
More generally, many in the VR community are also nervous about the implications of having such a large player as Meta in the relatively niche VR space, especially if Meta eventually controls the entire process, from headset to software. However, with incredible amounts of money being invested by Meta into VR, it appears VR is here to stay for now.
“There were concerns about the data that Facebook were collecting with their foray into VR, and now they’ve shifted their branding into Meta and the Metaverse,” says Sanderson.
“It’s a really tricky question because if it’s not Facebook, it would be TikTok [or another big company].”
For those in aged care who were part of the program, however, it was a wonderful, if novel, experience. Being able to tell their children and grandchildren they were using this technology was also a big plus. “I do think everyone could benefit from it,” says Hackwood. “It brings the outside in.”
Jacinta Bowler is a science journalist at Cosmos. They have a undergraduate degree in genetics and journalism from the University of Queensland and have been published in the Best Australian Science Writing 2022.