Could virtual reality be the solution for combating loneliness among older adults?

Aug 07, 2023
VR holds promise of combating loneliness among older adults. Source: Getty

The challenges of visiting your hometown or spending time with your distant grandkids may soon be a thing of the past, as a new wave of technology is being developed to allow for better connectivity among the elderly.

The Planet WellBeing project is a joint effort between Sheffield Hallam University, Age UK, and technology provider Pixelmill Digital that hopes to combat loneliness and isolation in older adults through virtual reality (VR).

Over 33 per cent of adults worldwide experience feelings of loneliness, with about 7 in 10 people expressing that loneliness has caused a decline in their psychological health.

In Australia, 13 per cent of older adults over 65 experience loneliness, with those over 75 more likely to be lonelier than any other age demographic.

The project aims to tackle this issue by allowing older adults to socialise with others through games, music, and avatars in a safe online environment.

Speaking to the BBC, Chief Executive of Age UK Sheffield Teresa Barker says Planet Wellbeing could “revolutionise” how we approach mental health and wellbeing for older adults.

According to Dr Ben Heller, associate professor at the university’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre, the 18-month trial was based on more than a decade of research, which “has demonstrated how older people can be motivated to exercise more through fun, social activities in virtual worlds”.

Participants of the project were given readily available VR devices and headsets that allowed them to do things like paint on canvases and climb virtual walls.

“It ties in very well with the centre’s goal to improve health and wellbeing through movement,” Dr Heller said.

Though a promising solution, the results of the trial will undergo thorough analysis prior to a definitive decision on whether to implement the initiative on a broader scale.

The potential use of VR extends beyond addressing mental health concerns in older adults. It was recently also proposed as a solution for creating more accessible rehabilitation programs tailored for frail seniors.

In the past, there have been concerns raised that VR rehab programs wouldn’t be as effective as in-person home care services, however, researchers from McMaster University disprove this argument.

“Our model on virtual frailty rehabilitation resulted in improvements such as being able to cross the street, rise from the chair without needing assistance and allow people to remain in their own homes with the support of their families and the health care system,” McMaster University Department of Medicine Professor and the study’s principal investigator, Alexandra Papaioannou said.

Some healthcare institutes in Australia have already welcomed the idea of using VR as a way to treat patients.

My Home Hospital in Adelaide is a joint venture launched by Calvary and Medibank in collaboration with SA Health.

This innovative program not only ensures that emergency departments and wards are available for those in urgent need, but it also allows patients to receive visits from healthcare professionals in the comfort of their own homes.


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