How virtual reality is giving the elderly remarkable end-of-life adventures

Virtual reality has promised to enrich our future for decades. But it's only now, in hospices around the world, is the technology seemingly bringing a benefit to society

It feels, at least in popular culture, that we’ve had decades of false starts for virtual reality. Promised to be the future of entertainment for the masses as far back as the 1950s, it wasn’t until 1991 that Sega released the first consumer virtual reality (VR) gaming headset with the Sega VR1. But it’s only now, nearly 30 years later, that VR is really living up to its promise of transporting users away from their living rooms and into new worlds. Devices like the HTC
Vive and Oculus Rift have upended the video game industry, allowing gamers to shoot, feel and see places just not possible in real life.

Because of this, care of the elderly may not be the first thing you think of when imagining virtual reality, but that’s exactly the mission of Scottish social enterprise and Big Issue Invest investee Viarama, which instead of using virtual reality to placate the next generation of Ready Player Ones, is using the immersive power of the technology to improve the lives of senior citizens who are receiving end-of-life care.

Viarama was founded in 2015, and it touts itself as Scotland’s first virtual reality company. The social enterprise works with all age ranges across education and healthcare to improve quality of life, and even trains 18 to 24-year-olds in using the technology so they can go on to help others. But it’s Viarama’s work in hospices and palliative care that really shines through in giving real benefits to society.

“Most people can understand how children love to interact with technology. However, something that’s less understood is its impact on senior citizens and how they respond to it,” Billy Agnew, chief executive of Viarama, told The Big Issue.

I was absolutely staggered by how much they enjoyed the experience, and how powerful it was for them

“Viarama first became involved with the elderly a few years ago because we are working on a VR tool to help people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, so we started using it with a variety of senior citizen groups.

“I was absolutely staggered by how much they enjoyed the experience, and how powerful it was for them. The response was incredibly emotional, which was something that I was mostly unprepared for.”

Using the most up-to-date computers coupled with HTC Vive headsets and Google Earth VR software, Viarama is taking those in nursing homes or hospices on journeys they never thought possible again in their lives.

“In a hospice situation, we are going in there and letting people ‘travel’ the world. We are letting people travel to where they got married, or where they did their national service, and to places that they never thought they would be able to see,” said Agnew. “It’s quite often hugely moving. The first time we worked in a hospice we had two doctors who were in to evaluate what we were doing, and both of the doctors broke down because it was so emotional.”

The powerful properties of virtual reality for the elderly and those with mental health problems is a trend rapidly gaining pace worldwide. Doctors are using VR in the treatment of soldiers with PTSD to determine triggers of flashbacks and to alleviate anxiety. Researchers are also using VR in the treatment of patients with schizophrenia to help them manage their hallucinations.

Royal Trinity Hospice in London is currently on a year-long study to examine the benefits of VR in palliative care, and existing research into the technology is proving that VR experiences are indeed giving people living with illnesses and terminal conditions a better quality of life. A recent study from the University of Tokyo, examining VR for palliative medicine at the National Cancer Center Hospital in Japan, concluded that “VR technology can be applied to palliative medicine to support communication between the patient and others, to provide psychological support to treat neurosis and help to stabilise the patient’s mental state, and to actually treat cancer.”

For Agnew and Viarama, it’s this quality-of-life support that’s the most helpful and rewarding aspect of what they do.

“We’ve had mountain climbers climbing mountains, we’ve had artists who have dementia who have had to give up their life’s work, and we let them draw, paint and sculpt in VR,” said Agnew. “You need to let people have fun in their life, and we provide that, and it’s wonderful.”

Image: Viarama