What a trip!

Virtual reality programming is helping seniors relax — and explore the world!

Costa Rica beach
Original, 360-degree videos create immersive virtual reality experiences for seniors, including trips to warm sandy beaches. Photo courtesy of Virtual / WellnessVR

Outside, it’s a chilly, gloomy Minnesota day, one that calls for sweaters and tea, not exploring and adventuring.

But inside, a dozen people are gathered in a semicircle. Some are relaxing on a beach in Costa Rica. Others are traveling to Stonehenge. A few are sitting in on a rehearsal of the Minnesota Opera.

Where they are isn’t evident at first glance. Each is wearing an Oculus Go, an oversized gray headset that straps over the head to covers the eyes, delivering 360-degree virtual reality footage.

Moving their heads up and down, left and right, they’re exploring the worlds unfolding in front of them.

Without ever leaving their comfy armchairs, they’re moving around on a digital magic carpet, seeing new sights and, in some cases, revisiting cherished memories.

One woman was so delighted about her virtual visit to a Costa Rican beach that she took off her shoes and socks so she could pretend to dig her toes in the sand. This whole new world of virtual reality is happening at The Pillars of White Bear Heights, an independent living, assisted living and memory care community in White Bear Lake.

VR is obviously loads of fun. More important, however, is that it’s becoming another scalable option in the toolkit for reducing stress and improving overall wellbeing among seniors.

And now — as the long-term reality of the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds among this most-vulnerable population — such immersive technology may become more important to older adults than even VR advocates had envisioned.

Early adopters

The Pillars of White Bear Heights’ VR project is the result of unique partnership between the Twin Cities-based property development firm Oppidan Investment Co. and Minneapolis-based Visual, a VR company that offers a WellnessVR platform, among others.

WellnessVR headsets are available at all of Oppidan’s Pillars communities, including White Bear Lake, Highland Park, Shorewood, Mankato and eventually in 2021 at The Pillars at Prospect Park in Minneapolis, which is set to welcome residents in mid-May.

“We’re committed to enhancing the lives of seniors who call our communities home,” said Shannon Rusk, Oppidan senior vice president of development. “This includes providing our seniors with the most advanced lifestyle and access to cutting-edge technologies, like WellnessVR, so they can live life to the fullest.”

Other consumer-focused VR experiences might feature adrenaline-boosting thrills such as roller coaster rides or bungee jumping.

WellnessVR is different. Programming options include virtual travel; arts and culture; and relaxing nature scenes. “All of the content on this platform is designed to reduce stress and promote well- being,” said Kate Westlund, a WellnessVR facilitator, who is guiding today’s session.

WellnessVR - MN Opera - La Boheme 360
MN Opera – La Boheme 360

Minnesota memories

Just a few weeks into the program’s launch, Westlund has noticed progress with more resident interaction, including folks sharing conversations about what they were seeing on their virtual adventures.

In addition to the soothing and educational benefits of the video, socialization is another perk.

VR images often trigger memories that can spur conversation and storytelling among users.

One resident grew excited at a visit to the U.S.S. Midway and shared a story about a time she visited her husband on the ship.

“We’ve included a number of Minnesota-based scenarios, because we think that might help elicit some happy memories for residents,” Westlund said.

Those include a visit to a typical summer cabin, a walk along Lake Superior, a tour of the Goldstein Museum of Design at the University of Minnesota and a performance by the Minnesota Opera.

For now, during the COVID-19 lockdown, residents are still partaking in VR sessions — just not as a group activity.

Headsets are disinfected and seniors can use them in their rooms for immer- sive virtual outings.

Calming benefits

Kerri Antonen, activities director at the facility, said that, for some residents, the sessions have been more than enjoyable: They’ve been therapeutic.

She pointed to one memory care resident who was sitting calmly in a chair, enjoying a beach scene that Westland had queued up for her.

“Have you ever been to Hawaii?” Westlund asked as she slipped the headset on the woman. “Can you see how warm it is?”

The woman nodded and settled back, hands in her lap. The staff shared looks and smiles, clearly counting this as a major victory.

“This particular resident experiences agitation and anxiety,” Antonen said. “She exhibits the symptoms of sundown syndrome, which means that her behavioral problems can worsen in the evening, while the sun is setting. But after her first session, we noticed right away that she was much more relaxed all through the evening. For many of our memory care residents, we’re seeing evidence that WellnessVR is making them feel calmer.”

How does VR compared to simply watching TV?

Westlund said the experience is far more immersive.

“You don’t look around and see your neighbor talking down the hall,” she said. “It is designed to be a little slower. It’s designed for wellness.”

virtual reality headsets
Residents of The Pillars of White Bear Heights tried out virtual reality headsets earlier this year as a group. During the pandemic, the headsets are available for individual sessions. Photo courtesy of The Pillars of White Bear Heights

Immersive and engaging

While some VR companies might use stock footage in their programming, Visual, Westlund said, shoots all of its own 360-degree videography and creates entirely original content.

During COVID, Westlund’s been spending time editing a backlog of content, which can be loaded to the head- sets remotely when it’s ready.

Experiences that include music have been some of the most engaging and powerful, especially among memory care residents, Westlund said.

During one session at The Pillars of Shorewood one memory care resident (who would have some good days, some bad) started singing perfectly along with an Italian opera tune.

It turned out she was a former opera singer.

“She knew the opera, who wrote it, what the song was called and what they were saying in English,” Westlund said. “It was great to see her shine and be in her element.”

After everyone took off their headsets, there was further reminiscing.

“It seemed like she was transported,” Westlund said. “Nobody knew about her past.”

Experiences can be customized to meet users’ needs.

“If we have a resident who’s interested in World War II or a resident who loves gardening, we can come back and think about ways to produce content that will scratch that itch,” Westlund said. “We are able to take anecdotal recommendations, but also ask the staff.”

Acknowledging that her field is truly in its infancy, Westlund is optimistic about the potential for future application.

“Someday, we may be able to offer people customized experiences of the places that have meant the most to them throughout their lives,” she said.

Scientific backing

Although the use of VR is only recently gaining ground as health and wellness technique, there’s already some evidence that it could have a positive effect on those who are using it.

A recent study at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom concluded that VR technology could vastly improve the quality of life for people with dementia by helping them recall past memories, reduce aggression and improve interactions with caregivers.

The study noted that directing users to positive memories and past experiences “not only provided positive mental stimulation for them, but helped their caregivers learn more about their lives before care, thereby improving their social interaction.”

Closer to home, a study conducted by WellnessVR with Ebenezer Senior Living’s Minneapolis campus recorded seniors’ state of mind after they used WellnessVR twice a week for four weeks. Among the findings: 96% reported feeling happier, 97% felt more relaxed, 98% felt more positive, 94% felt less worried and all had positive overall experiences with VR tech.

Participants described WellnessVR as one of their preferred activities.

WellnessVR - Stonehenge

Ending isolation

For those who can’t venture out into the big, wide world — and for a while that may be most of us — virtual reality can bring the world to them.

During the session at The Pillars of White Bear Heights, two residents sat together, enjoying a rehearsal by the Minnesota Opera, bobbing their heads along to one of the arias from La Bohème.

“It really feels like you’re there,” said Barb Schroeder, 80, after the session. “I think it’s wonderful, since we can’t always get out as often as we’d like.”

While things aren’t exactly the same these days, the promise of VR technology — in a world gone virtual — may become more important than ever.

Westlund said: “This has a real capability to reduce isolation and offer a sense of connection, which is so important for seniors in general, but especially during times like this.”

Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.