Is virtual reality the antidote to help depressed seniors?

Canadian researchers are looking into how VR can be prescribed to seniors to rehabilitate them from things like strokes, treat depression, dementia and anxiety, and serve as an escape from their hospital or hospice beds.

Researchers explore how it could help seniors with dementia, depression and anxiety

OpenLab, based out of Toronto General Hospital, is researching how virtual reality can be used to improve the lives of senior patients. This gentlemen tested it out a few weeks ago at November's HealthAchieve conference in Toronto. (Submitted by Lora Appel/University Health Network)

Seniors probably aren't the first demographic that comes to mind when you think of virtual reality. But a few groups in Canada believe a dose of VR might just make the perfect medicine.

Researchers in different parts of the country are looking into how VR can be prescribed to elderly patients to rehabilitate them from things like strokes, treat depression, dementia and anxiety, and serve as an escape from their hospital or hospice beds.

Lora Appel, a researcher with OpenLab at Toronto General Hospital, has been focusing her VR research efforts on seniors with dementia. Some of these patients don't get to go outside much because they like to wander — and that can be dangerous.

Her hope is to use VR as a tool to take them outdoors virtually and cut down on the wandering.

"I have no doubt this will improve quality of life," she said.

Appel's team has yet to test the technology with seniors, but she and her colleagues are well into the research phase and hope to roll out a pilot project by the end of the summer.

Will they wear it?

But immersive VR technology can be mind-altering for even the sharpest of brains. There are concerns about what will happen when an elderly person is outfitted with a tight-fitting pair of VR goggles.

Some seniors, especially those with dementia, may already have a hard time understanding what is going on around them. VR may only make things worse.

The goggles have been known to cause motion sickness, particularly in women, according to a 2016 study.

"Some people will likely not want to tolerate this headset," she said. "[But] with training, I think they will be able to handle it."

OpenLab showed some of its VR films at the HealthAchieve conference in Toronto this past November, earning the group praise from those who tried it out.

"They just kept saying, 'This would be perfect for my father,'" Appel said. Her team is taking cues from music therapy — she specifically mentioned the wide-eyed old man from the documentary Alive Inside, whose reaction to hearing music went viral online.

"We're thinking that VR might be version 2.0 of this."

'You're almost granting a dying wish'

It's a new concept for Canadians, but some in the U.S. have already been experimenting with VR-like experiences for seniors, like Aerial Anthropology, a Cleveland, Ohio-based film production company that specializes in flying drones for hospice patients.

The drone flights are streamed live for patients on a large screen, showing them a meaningful location of their choice — like the family home or a park they used to go to as a kid. The visuals have brought up many memories for patients and their families.

"You're almost granting a dying wish," said Tom Davis, who owns the company.

He was initially going to use the VR headset to show the aerial footage but decided it might be a bit too much for the dying patients.

The Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton came to a similar conclusion.

"When I put it on myself, I realized it's too overwhelming," said Quentin Ranson, an occupational therapist at the hospital and its rehabilitation technology lead. "It's just too disorienting."

A test subject tries out the CAREN unit at the Ottawa Hospital. It is being used for seniors at Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton. (CBC )

Instead, they have some seniors try out different types of virtual reality without the headsets, like a driving simulator and a virtual reality motion-capture machine called CAREN (Computer-Assisted Rehabilitation Environment), which helps seniors with severe physical injuries learn to walk again.

He said the older patients have responded well to the virtual technology he has been testing out, choosing to use them when the seniors get bored of traditional therapy techniques. "As long as we can help them understand what they are supposed to do quickly … they are actually quite engaged."

Using VR as an escape

It's something Douglas Cole saw when he created a 3D movie specifically for seniors with his Edmonton production company 3Scape Systems. The film — about a young girl remembering her time with her grandparents — screened to seniors in 11 different facilities.

"We've had people break out crying, we've had people break out laughing," he said. "They are all eager to try … it's very easy to bring [them] into this realm instead of 'We're going to do a medical procedure on you.'"

Some seniors test out 3Scape Systems’ 3D movie. With its next set of films for seniors, the company hopes to demonstrate the therapeutic benefits of the technology. (3Scape Systems/Vimeo)

And soon his experiment will shift to VR.

Cole and his crew just got two grants to do four more films for seniors in both 3D and VR, with the hope of carrying out clinical studies. He wasn't able to do that with just one film.

For Cole, all this new technology geared towards seniors is a long time coming.

"It is a forgotten demographic and that's why we really think it is an important demographic," he said.

"If we are going to put them in facilities, let's find a way to have them, at least in their minds, to escape these facilities."