Virtual Reality Surprises Aged Care Residents in Adelaide
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Virtual Reality Surprises Aged Care Residents in Adelaide

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Isn’t it always the young, enthusiastic minds which are attracted towards state of the art technology? Actually, no. Virtual reality (VR) has paved its way among the elderly in Adelaide and they are starting to learn how fun and useful it can be.

As a part of the study conducted by the University of South Australia, the aged care residents at Helping Hand got a chance to recall their past adventures and cherished memories through VR in a bid to improve their mental health.

The omnipresent apathy within aged care homes speeds up cognitive decline and leaves a negative impact on up to 84 percent of the elderly. UniSA Ph.D. candidate, Jim Saredakis, believes that virtual reality presents itself as a worthwhile solution to this problem.

“Lack of interest in life and loss of motivation are extremely common among people in aged care homes,” he said. “Apathy contributes to a poorer quality of life and is associated with a three-fold risk of earlier death compared to those without apathy.”

Virtual reality can be employed to facilitate ‘reminiscence therapy’ which would allow the aged to live happier memories from their past yet again.

Saredakis began the study with a group of 17 residents at Helping Hand. He understood about each of their life history through a series of interviews and then began curating customized content for each participant. The participants could relive autobiographical memories of travel, favorite places, jobs, family, and much more through a 360-degree video on head-mounted displays.

Saredakis stated, “It’s a digital life storybook; a powerful tool which takes aged care residents away from the world they’re in and into a happier time and place with no other distractions.”

The response from the residents was overwhelmingly positive. “I saw a visible change in them. The emotional responses were varied (including happy tears) but always positive,” exclaimed Saredakis.

They could observe serious improvements in verbal fluency which is a noted indicator of apathy. The participants could remember a lot more words post the immersive sessions which hint towards positive activations within certain areas of their brain.

“We believe that being in the immersive environment stimulates the brain areas involved in verbal fluency,” Saredakis stated. “What we found was that people with high levels of apathy said more words after the experience, triggering something in their brain. It was an immediate effect and we don’t know how long it lasts.”

There were a few downsides to the experiment too. The residents experienced dizziness, nausea, motion sickness, and a bit of eye strain which was expected. Nevertheless, they thoroughly enjoyed the activity and rated the overall experience positively.

“The fact that residents with the highest levels of apathy showed the most improvements tells us that virtual reality could help improve the lives of older adults in residential aged care,” Saredakis added.

The study has paved the way for further research into determining the effectiveness of virtual reality as opposed to prevalent forms of reminiscence therapy and its possible impact on apathy.

“Using virtual reality to improve apathy in residential aged care: mixed methods study” has been published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

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