Many older adults face various challenges related to aging: social and geographic isolation, reduced mobility, physical and cognitive decline. Many researchers are interested in the promising role of technologies to address some of these challenges.(1; 2) Among all the technologies, immersive virtual reality is of particular interest.
What is immersive virtual reality? It is a technology that allows users to experience a computer-generated environment as if it were real. This technology uses a headset that follows the user's head movements, creating a realistic sense of presence in a virtual world. The 360-degree videos capture an entire scene, allowing the viewer to look in any direction. Immersive virtual reality using 360-degree videos offers a powerful and engaging experience that can transport users to different environments and stimulate their senses.
Numerous studies show that immersive virtual reality positively influences cognitive function and memory, pain management, anxiety and depression in people of all ages and promotes greater social interaction and overall well-being. In addition, this technology is accessible, affordable, customizable and easy to use. But what does the research tell us specifically about older adults?
What the research tells us
A scoping review of 10 studies examined the effectiveness of immersive virtual reality using 360-degree videos on the well-being of older adults aged 68-87, with and without cognitive impairment.(3) Interventions were offered to older adults living in the community and in care facilities, individually and in groups. Participants could be seated or reclined in chairs and wore lightweight headphones. The content of the 360-degree videos showed mostly natural scenes and tourist locations.
Numerous behavioural and psychological outcomes were assessed, such as anxiety, apathy, loneliness, depression, social engagement, quality of life and emotions.
Although the studies were conducted on a small number of participants, the results show that this technology has a positive effect on well-being, particularly on apathy and emotions.
By providing older adults with new experiences, immersive virtual reality allows them to feel more engaged and motivated, which can contribute to a sense of purpose and maximize well-being.
The majority of participants found the experience enjoyable and emotionally empowering.
... and mixed results
The effects on other behavioural and psychological factors such as anxiety, quality of life, depression and loneliness remain uncertain according to this review, because they have not been sufficiently studied or have shown mixed results.
Is virtual reality for you?
Immersive environments can allow you to travel, visit museums, fly a plane, practice your golf swing, perform exercises in a controlled environment, as well as recall memories and generate positive emotions.
Yet, a few study participants experienced symptoms similar to those caused by motion sickness: disorientation, dizziness, headache, nausea. Before you embark on immersive experiences, talk to your health professional to make sure this technology is right for you.
If you have the green light, ask whether your nursing home has access to virtual reality equipment and access to 360-degree video libraries. Also, many public libraries offer activities to explore virtual reality, and some have the equipment available to their members. Get informed and have fun!