Is Virtual Reality the Cure-All for Senior Care?


19 Apr Is Virtual Reality the Cure-All for Senior Care?

My grandmother spent most of her life caring for my grandfather. They married in their teens and had a very loving, traditional marriage. He served as the breadwinner and she as a homemaker. So for nearly 60 years, she prepared his meals, laundered and ironed his clothes, cared for their children, and created a loving home. She took great pride in her work, and when he died, she felt completely lost. Just three years later, she joined him.

I remember calling her during that three-year period. I lived 1000s of miles away and would feel pangs of guilt as she shared how lonely she was without Granddad. She missed feeling needed and wanted. She also, once a very healthy woman, suddenly began to experience chronic pain and other health issues. I visited, occasionally lent a sympathetic ear, and here and there sent a little trinket in the mail, but truthfully, I was busy working and raising my daughter. I didn’t have time for my grandmother’s grief. And today, years later, I still wish I’d done more, that I’d really helped.

My parents are now getting older, and I’m driven to make life better for them as they age. They worked so hard to provide a great life for my siblings and me, and I want them to reap the benefits of good health and a rich social network. Of course, spiritual health, quality medical care, and nurturing communities are part of this, but today’s technology can also play an important role in the care of older adults.

Virtual Reality

One innovation I’m excited about is virtual reality. Sounds weird, I know, but there’s a lot more to it. Virtual reality is a computer-generated, three-dimensional environment that can be engaged using a special helmet and gloves fitted with sensors. It gives users the feeling of literally being in the virtual environment.

Initially, virtual reality took off in the gaming industry. It made video games more realistic, experiential, and interactive. Gamers were blown away and spent hours engaging in these exciting other worlds. Today, virtual reality has become much more than a gamer’s dream. It’s now gaining momentum in medical and older adult care to improve long-term physical and mental health.

Memory Care

Let’s start with dementia, a well-known condition associated with aging. For dementia patients, virtual reality is a great platform for reminiscence therapy.

Many older adults who suffer cognitive decline become depressed or even paranoid, losing interest in the things they once enjoyed. One way to treat these symptoms is through memory work. Patients are exposed to a virtual environment that is familiar to them, like a beach where they previously vacationed, a neighborhood where they grew up, or an elementary school they attended with good friends. Walking patients through these incredibly personal experiences triggers strong emotions, fond memories, and feelings of wellbeing. Dan Cole, co-creator of the virtual reality company The Way Back, helps them recall memories.

[Watch as dementia patients enjoy an event that happened 65 years ago.]

Pain Management

Amazingly, virtual reality is a powerful panacea for pain, with potential to combat the opioid epidemic. Highly addictive opioids are the number one prescribed pain medication in the United States. While they offer relief, they are often misused or consumed for too long, resulting in dependence. Plus, opioids only treat—they do not cure—pain conditions. Without a real replacement, the opioid crisis is not going away.

For chronic and phantom pain sufferers, virtual reality works as both a pain distraction and, ultimately, a long-term pain remedy. This treatment distracts the patient with enchanting digital scenes highly effective even for burn victims or women in labor. For a more hands-on approach, patients “interact” with their injured body part. One patient, Pierre Martin who suffered debilitating pain in his left arm, played a virtual reality game with his pain-free right arm. Digital scenes displayed real-time activity of his left arm. This tricked his brain, relieving his pain. Dr. Kim Bullock, a neuropsychiatrist who accidentally discovered the treatment, reports that patients dependent upon pain medication just to function, experience relief that lasts for weeks and even months.

Relief from Isolation 

Virtual reality offers relief from isolation or boredom that might result from an injury or illness, or upon retirement or relocation. Want to go to a concert? Virtual reality could bring the concert home. It will simulate the real experience of being among revelers and enjoying favorite bands. Love amusement parks, but can’t ride anymore? Virtual reality can recreate the sensation of a thrill ride and the rush of coasting down at full speed.

Mental Health

Virtual reality is useful in the treatment of mental health conditions like bipolar disorder and anxiety. It exposes patients to the environments that trigger their fear responses. This happens under the watchful eyes of trained professionals who control the virtual experience and monitor patients‘ blood pressure and sensory systems. If the virtual experience becomes too intense for them, they are allowed to end it. However, the desire is to have patients go through the experience while receiving empathic input. Often, the patient realizes the trigger is not a threat and once therapy ends, triggers like elevators, classrooms, airplanes, and subways no longer cause the fear response.

Mobility and Exercise

For those in recovery from surgery or stroke or who need to strength train or increase range of motion, virtual reality provides strong motivation to exercise. The realistic scenes upon mountainous terrains, in botanical gardens, or along beachy boardwalks, can make exercise irresistible. Many people quickly get bored with home gyms. Virtual reality puts users in breathtaking environments, so they want to get moving. And for those in rehab, virtual environments are just the right motivation to help them press through their limitations as they visualize themselves moving freely once again.

Shared Travel Experiences

Some older adults decide to move into senior living facilities to receive care and expand their community. Participating in virtual travel with other residents in the facility helps foster conversation and friendships. At Brookdale Senior Living Community, older adults are brought into a room with comfy chairs for a digital sightseeing adventure. They might explore the Great Barrier Reef in Australia or set their eyes on the Pyramids in Egypt. On another day, they might travel a little closer to home by leaning down into the expansive Grand Canyon in Arizona. These virtual experiences get residents chatting as they enjoy magical, shared experiences.

Participation in Family Events

For any number of reasons, older adults or the medically dependent may not be able to make milestone family events. This can be heartbreaking for them as well as their loved ones. One way they can share in the festivities is through virtual reality. In Japan, a homebound grandmother attended her grandson’s wedding with a virtual reality helmet and a robot controlled by her eye movements. When the new bride greeted the robot representation of the grandmother, the experience was so real that she reached out to hug her new granddaughter-in-law.

According to Laurie Orlov, founder of Aging in Place Technology Watch, several virtual reality companies exist. A few specifically hone in on treatment and long-term care of older adults and those needing assistance.

  • BettVR with Age creates films to help older adults relive fond memories. The best part is that they ensure movement within the videos is fluid and subtle to prevent motion sickness or vertigo.
  • Firsthand for VR Pain Relief focuses on brain rewiring that resolves pain.
  • One Caring Team’s Aloha VR combats isolation by providing immersive experiences to older adults.
  • Rendever helps dementia patients reconnect with memories and experiences.

What’s Next

I found a virtual reality facility in my area, and I plan to schedule an appointment. Who knows if this is just the solution for my mother who wants to travel the world right here at home.


Cole, Dan. (2018) “Virtual Reality Takes Dementia Patients on a Trip Down Memory Lane.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from:

“FOVE Teleports Granda to Her Grandson’s Wedding with Eye-tracking Controlled Robot. (2016) FOVE, Inc. Retrieved from:

Holt, Lester. (2017) “Can Virtual Reality Sessions Treat Chronic Pain?” NBC Nightly News. Retrieved from:

Miller, Michelle. (2016) “Senior Community Explores the World with Virtual Reality.” CBS This Morning. Retrieved from:

“Optimizing Motor Imagery Neurofeedback through the use of Multimodal Virtual Reality.” (2015) Thanos. Retrieved from:

Orlov, Laurie. (2017) “Five Technology Offerings for Older Adults From Connected Health Boston 2017.” Aging in Place Technology Watch. Retrieved from:

“Seniors Travel Using VR. (2017) Mashable Daily. Retrieved from:

“Virtual Reality Used to Treat Mental Health Problems.” (2016) Oxford Health. Retrieved from:


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