New Brunswick

Senior swims with virtual whales

Joyce Merrill of the York Care Centre in Fredericton spins slowly in a circle, taking in the watery blue depths around her as humpback whales and a big turtle swim by.

Fredericton research subjects who can't get out much get adventure through virtual reality

Residents at a Fredericton care home get to experience virtual reality, while a researcher studies its effects on their moods and mental well-being. 2:41

Joyce Merrill spins slowly in a circle, head thrown back, taking in the watery blue depths around her.

Colourful fish dart past, just out of reach, pink sea anemones retreat in alarm as she draws near. A vast school of giant, pulsating jellyfish floats majestically overhead, with humpback whales nearby.

"Ooh, pretty flowers," Merrill half-whispers. "Hi, little fishy."

Despite appearances, she is nowhere near the tropics, or the ocean. 

Outside, a fierce winter storm has just dumped its burden of snow, leaving her and other residents of Fredericton's York Care Centre effectively housebound.

So the 75-year-old retired school teacher is sitting in her motorized wheelchair with a large, square, virtual-reality headset strapped to her face.

Joyce Merrill is one of eight subjects at the care home who have agreed to be guinea pigs in Law's research on the rehabilitative effects of virtual reality. (CBC)

Framed by a spray of curly grey hair, the headset is connected with a cable to researcher Sherry Law's laptop computer.

"What do you see, Joyce?" Law asks as she wrestles the long cable out of the way of Merrill's wheels.

"Thousands and thousands of shiny fins ... and a big turtle. Ooh, when I get close to the edge here it's kind of spooky, but the fish are very calm and relaxing."

Research subject

Merrill is one of eight subjects at the care home who have agreed to be guinea pigs in Law's research on the rehabilitative effects of virtual reality. 

She's already been to space, floated among planets and hurtled along a gut-wrenching roller coaster.

"I got screaming," Merrill says, half grimacing, half laughing. "I was gasping for breath. You were high up on these little thin rails. I was holding on to my chair. I was gasping for breath."

Law says her sessions have been a hit.

Games like Fruit Ninja, where participants have to slice fruit that comes flying at them, encourage physical exertion. (CBC)

Participants choose their own programs — from tours of museums, to undersea adventures, to games such as Fruit Ninja, where people have to slice fruit that comes flying at them — that encourage physical exertion.

"They look forward to seeing me here when they do," Law says.

"They get to try something different, they get to escape their room. They get to be on a roller coaster when otherwise they've never been able to try it before in their lives."

Marlene Wilkinson uses a wheelchair and an oxygen tank at the care centre.

Like Merrill, she's an eager participant in Law's research. 

Today, she opts for a virtual snowball fight. With the mask on and a VR wand in each hand, she is soon flailing her arms to hurl snowballs at targets and to fend off those being thrown at her.

"At the very minimum it's a form of recreation," Law says.

"The ideal is that it can be a source of rehabilitation, it can be a way to socialize with people back home, it can be a resource to invigorate, intrigue and interest."

Inspired by grandmother's death

Law began wondering about the therapeutic effects of VR when her own grandmother was dying in Hong Kong. 

Trapped by age and disability in a small apartment and with Law and her family half a world away, the options were limited. 

"I contemplated what it was like for her to be passing and not really have a lot of space around her and what that would have been like for her mental health," she says. "And I was wondering how could I have made it better. 

"My mind just naturally merged the two together — claustrophobic space, limited care (and) virtual reality offering an expansion of experiences, opening up that room, bringing her to different locations so hopefully she was able to pass with a higher quality of life."

Law began wondering about the therapeutic effects of virtual reality when her own grandmother was dying in Hong Kong. (CBC)

Now Law is hoping to bring the benefits of virtual reality to a wider audience of shut-ins.

Working under the supervision of Jose Domene at UNB's education department, Law approached the York Care Centre with her research proposal to introduce residents to the world of virtual reality and record the effect on their quality of life. 

A self-confessed tech junkie, she bought the gear herself.

A headset connected to a top-of-the-line gaming laptop, two wands and two sensors that lay down an infrared perimeter the subjects can move within, about $3,600 worth of equipment.

"The goal is to introduce a strategy of intervention that can help to maintain quality of health or well-being for residents in long-term care," Law says.

Improving quality of life

Each session lasts about 20 minutes, followed by a post-test interview to gauge long-term changes.

If there are long-term benefits for participants, Law wants to help develop virtual reality environments in care homes across the province. (CBC)

Law hopes to publish her results for peer review. If there are long-term benefits for participants, she wants to help develop virtual reality environments in care homes across the province. 

"An ideal picture would be that there's a room dedicated for recreation specifically for virtual reality," she says.

"So that residents have the ability to experience any kind of simulation that they choose, whether that be to travel to Japan, maybe throw some snowballs, maybe it's to play some games with a stranger online," she says.

Joyce Merrill can't wait. Long winter days would be much shorter if residents could break up the tedium with a virtual reality excursion, she says.

"They'd be lined up to come," she says. "Here it is, go anywhere, do anything."