Virtual Reality for Seniors: Traveling Through Time and Reducing Pain

Young Girl Having Fun On Rope SwingHelen, 83, loved recounting “the good old days” with friends at her assisted living facility. She would talk about her old neighborhood in Roanoke, the neighbors across the street, riding her bicycle with her friends, and swinging high into the clouds on a swing her father attached to a tree. She also mentioned her desire to visit Paris and to experience the view atop the Eiffel Tower, but knew she would probably never be able to visit, at least not in this lifetime.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if she could experience her childhood neighborhood once again and visit Paris, without ever leaving the assisted living facility where she resides?  Now, through a virtual reality headset with special goggles attached, Helen can be transported in time and space, from her assisted living facility in Fairfax, to the places she longs to visit.

Similar travels are currently being made possible by Reed Hayes, 28, and Dennis Lally, 27, two MIT Sloan School of Management graduate students whose startup, Rendever Health, is developing virtual reality programs to provide therapeutic entertainment in assisted living facilities, and down the road, to test and treat seniors for the effects of aging.

Hayes and Lally have been testing the technology at senior centers, and have transported seniors to the Grand Canyon, explored the solar system aboard a rocket ship, and used a paint brush to create a Van Gogh from the artist’s viewpoint.

According to Hayes, “We started to notice once they were done with the demo they would go back to their friends at their table and talk about what they experienced. It was social, it lit a spark. Can you imagine coming up with a new conversation after being there 10 years and you haven’t been out?”

With virtual reality technology from Oculus, Rendever uses Gear VR headsets from Samsung that retail for just $100 and work with certain Samsung smartphones. On its blog, Oculus reported more than one million people used the Gear VR headset in April.

Hayes and Lally have developed their own software platform to use with the VR headsets, including adventures like a trip to Paris or an up close experience with performers from Cirque du Soleil. They plan on adding 360-degree virtual reality video cameras so family members can share events, such as weddings, with elderly relatives at an assisted living facility. They are currently working with facilities across the country to provide headsets and offer subscription services.

Virtual Reality to Treat Chronic Pain

As you can see, virtual reality is pretty amazing. If visiting your childhood neighborhood or checking a place to travel off your bucket list wasn’t enough, imagine using virtual reality to treat chronic pain!

About 1 out of 5 Americans suffer from chronic pain. For many, pain has a dramatic impact on daily function and quality of life. Drugs can be effective, but come with their concerns of potential side effects and the hazards of prolonged use. To help address this problem, the company, Firsthand, and scientists at the University of Washington, Dr. Hunter Hoffman and Dr. David Patterson, are collaborating with Dr. Diane Gromala to develop uses of virtual reality to treat chronic pain by applying relaxation and mindfulness techniques. In doing so, they are connecting biofeedback systems that measure stress levels, so patients can visualize and better control their internal mental state, thereby changing their relationship to their pain.

So far, the company has developed virtual reality platforms, such as SnowWorld, to reduce chronic pain for seniors and to reduce pain and anxiety during hospital procedures. SnowWorld transports the patient through an icy canyon filled with snowball hurling snowmen, flocks of squawking penguins, woolly mammoths and other surprises. Patients are drawn in, throwing their own snowballs as they fly through the gently falling snow. Often they become so engaged, they don’t realize they are experiencing pain!

To measure the effect on patients, the scientists used fMRI brain scans to measure the power of VR to control pain. Findings show that patients experienced a significant reduction in pain related brain activity while using SnowWorld. Clinical trials show dramatic reductions in pain, and patients report feeling less anxious when they are using it.

Scientists are continuing to explore the specific components of virtual reality that contribute to their analgesic effect, as well as how it can help treat seniors who are experiencing the inevitable effects of aging. I will continue to keep you updated on this and other exciting new technologies as I find out about them.

Alternatives for Seniors

What happens when caregiving becomes a strain? Whether the outcome is in-home care, assisted living, or nursing home care in the future, it is always wise to work with an experienced Elder Law Attorney such as myself. Life Care Planning and Medicaid Asset Protection is the process of protecting assets from having to be spent down in connection with entry into assisted living or nursing home care, while also helping ensure that you and your loved ones get the best possible care and maintain the highest possible quality of life, whether at home, in an assisted living facility, or in a nursing home. Please contact us as soon as possible to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation:

Fairfax Medicaid Asset Protection Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Medicaid Asset Protection Attorney: 540-479-143
Rockville Medicaid Asset Protection Attorney: 301-519-8041
DC Medicaid Asset Protection Attorney: 202-587-2797

P.S. If you have ever experienced virtual reality, please comment on my blog and tell me about it!

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