Social isolation is a reality for many older adults, and in response, technology is proving a viable avenue worth serious exploration. Virtual reality (VR) may be a solution, as it can transport us to distant lands, expose individuals to novel experiences, and connect to others within a virtual environment. VR offers unique opportunities for older people to immerse themselves in multisensory experiences that promote engagement and feelings of wellbeing. The use of virtual reality in reducing feelings of loneliness among older adults is gaining the attention of researchers, social workers, and gerontologists, and although studies are limited, data demonstrates positive responses and outcomes.
Impact of Social Isolation on Wellbeing
Many older people experienced profound psychosocial responses due to social isolation and loneliness during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Particularly for individuals without strong support networks, socialization during the period of quarantine was limited at best, which jeopardized mental and physiological well-being (Brown, 2019). A study by Gao and colleagues (2020) examined the impact of isolation on the physical health of older people. Lack of exercise and movement significantly impacts health in general and can intensify chronic health issues including obesity, heart disease, stroke and diabetes, all of which are controlled in part with consistent exercise. The social and physical benefits of exercise which may include walking, dancing, swimming and other interactive experiences were significantly limited during the pandemic.
VR: Recreational Implications and Reduction of Loneliness
According to Hughes et al. (2017) it has become increasingly apparent that the use of VR has potential to effectively mitigate negative effects associated with isolation and loneliness. Additionally, use of VR holds promise in supporting physical and cognitive health for people of all ages. Cheung K.L. et al. (2014) found a positive correlation between use of VR and changes in neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity occurs when the brain creates new pathways; challenging imagination, inspiring curiosity and critical thinking all stimulate cognitive functioning. VR offers users opportunities to engage in activities that increase cognitive activity, inspire creativity, and thus, promote neuroplasticity.
The user accesses the metaverse using a VR headset together with hand controls. The company Rendever offers a VR platform by which a facilitator controls a collective shared experience from a tablet or device. This device offers participants a “hands-free” platform thereby providing a VR experience that mitigates challenges in navigating the metaverse on one’s own. Participants can enjoy immersive virtual journeys back to their childhood neighborhoods, attend virtual concerts or they may join with others for an art gallery exhibit and lecture. Applications such as Zenjoi, Walkabout Golf, Liminal and Brushworks for example, offer stimulating sensorial options, together with interactive artistic exploration. VR opens windows to the world and offers access to a variety of experiences that might otherwise be unattainable.
The risks associated with social isolation extend beyond physical, emotional, and cognitive decompensation. Older people who are isolated are at higher risk for experiencing financial and physical abuse including neglect (Thangavel, G. et al., 2022). Technology that tethers individuals to their communities and systems of care can significantly reduce risk factors; all people need to be connected in order to be safe. VR offers users the opportunity to interact in both an instructional and social capacity thereby connecting them to the community and promoting visibility within the VR realm and among facilitators.
Pilot VR Study
Clinical Associate Professor Louanne Bakk, PhD, MSW, and her team from State University of New York, University at Buffalo, piloted a study in 2021 to explore the use of VR with a cohort of nine older adults in partnership with a Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE). Participants were 65 years and older and included both males and females. The participants experienced VR in group settings utilizing the Rendever VR platform. Participants explored a variety of virtual experiences including, but not limited to, traveling to various locations, exploring childhood neighborhoods, and attending a concert or cultural event. Focus groups were conducted to assess participants’ perceptions of the VR intervention. Participants reported their VR experiences as stimulating, pleasurable and engaging. The most common themes suggested that VR programming is regarded as a highly immersive, positive experience that facilitates connections and elicits positive feelings. Moreover, participants felt empowered by the experience. Therefore, the findings were inconsistent with common misconceptions that assume older people reject or have little interest in engaging with technology. The researchers concluded that utilizing VR programming with community-dwelling older adults can provide interactive and engaging immersive experiences and has the potential to reduce social isolation and improve well-being and connectedness (Bakk et al., 2021).
Limitations – Brown, J.A. (2019) examined the use of VR for older people to learn whether the experience holds value and additionally, whether the device (in this case was the Samsung Gear VR) was manageable for older people. Participant concerns included headset discomfort, hair caught in headset straps, and eyeglass adjustment challenges. The headset was noted by some to be heavy and awkward; others noted confusion using hand controllers. Dizziness was not reported as they were seated during the virtual experience. Brown advised that individuals with neck or head pain may find the headset less than comfortable and noted that accommodations for visually impaired may be necessary.
Findings – In 2019, Lin et al. studied the effects of the use of VR on a group of older adults’ social and emotional wellbeing. Pre and post intervention surveys were administered to assisted living residents to gauge participants’ attitudes toward, and feelings about the technology. After engaging with VR there was measurable improvement in several domains including an increase in perceived mental and physical wellbeing together with improved ability to manage depression and stress. Lin and colleagues concluded that VR has the potential to become a valuable tool in improving overall well-being among older people.
Van Houwelingen-Snippe, J., and colleagues (2021) reviewed literature that explored the concept of virtual immersion in nature in eliciting feelings of physical, emotional, and social wellbeing. Immersive and static, nature scenes and experiences elicit a sense of connectedness and in a broader sense, access to heightened spirituality. While engaging in nature-based experiences, VR can provide a distraction from emotional and physical discomfort. For others who may or may not ascribe to organized religion, spirituality often exists in nature and nature becomes a source of religiosity made accessible through VR.
Implications – The studies and articles referenced in this article strongly suggest that the tides are shifting and the movement toward incorporating VR into formal and informal interventions for older people holds value and deserves serious consideration. Technology evolves rapidly and with change comes greater accessibility and ease of use. For older adults, the potential benefits of VR use appear to outweigh the challenges and as technology moves into our homes, long-term care facilities, and adult centers, people of all ages will enjoy connecting with and through VR. Cole AC et al., (2021) and colleagues maintained that it is important to involve older people in co-designing and implementing technology to ensure the best possible outcomes for users. Assuming that older people reject technology is a common misperception, it is short-sighted, stigmatizing, and serves no purpose other than to exclude older people from enjoying the range of benefits that technology has to offer.
Heidi Billittier, LMSW, is Director of Older Adult Services at Compeer of Greater Buffalo. Heidi is a social worker committed to reducing stigma around aging and mental health and is a current Doctor of Social Work student. You can reach her at Heidi@compeerbuffalo.org
Bakk, L. (2021-present) (Co-PI), Dauenhauer, J. (Co-Pi), Allen, K., Milanmow, M., & Quinones-Visot, E. “Exploring Virtual Reality Worlds to Combat Loneliness of Caregivers and Their Loved Ones Living with Dementia as Part of a Volunteer Caregiver Respite Program at Lifespan of Rochester.”
Brown, J. A. (2019). An exploration of virtual reality use and application among older adult populations. Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine, 5, 233372141988528–2333721419885287. https://doi.org/10.1177/2333721419885287
Cheung, K. L., Tunik, E., Adamovich, S. V., & Boyd, L. A. (2014). Neuroplasticity and virtual reality. In Virtual Reality for Physical and Motor Rehabilitation (pp. 5-24). Springer, New York, NY.
Cole AC, Adapa K, Khasawneh A, et al. (2022) Codesign approaches involving older adults in the development of electronic healthcare tools: a systematic review BMJ Open.
Gao, Z., Lee, J. E., McDonough, D. J., & Albers, C. (2020). Virtual reality exercise as a coping strategy for health and wellness promotion in older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 9(6).
Hughes, S., Warren-Norton, K., Spadafora, P., & Tsotsos, L. (2017). Supporting optimal aging through the innovative use of virtual reality technology. Multimodal Technologies and Interaction, 1(4), 23.
Jecker, N. S. (2021). You’ve got a friend in me: Sociable robots for older adults in an age of global pandemics. Ethics and Information Technology, 23(S1), 35–43.
Lin, C. X., Lee, C., Lally, D., & Coughlin, J. F. (2018). Impact of virtual reality (VR) Experience on older adults’ well-being. In J. Zhou & G. Salvendy (Eds.), Human Aspects of IT for the Aged Population. Applications in Health, Assistance, and Entertainment 2018;(10927), pp. 89–100). Springer International Publishing.
Thangavel, G., Memedi, M., & Hedstrom, K. (2022). Customized information and communication technology for reducing social isolation and loneliness among older adults: Scoping Review. JMIR Mental Health, 9(3), e34221–e34221.
Van Houwelingen-Snippe, J., Ben Allouch, S., & Van Rompay, T. J. L. (2021). Virtual reality representations of nature to improve well-being amongst older adults: A rapid review. Journal of Technology in Behavioral Science, 6(3), 464–485.