Could virtual reality mark a new era of rehabilitation programs for seniors?

Jul 19, 2023
VR rehab can offer seniors living with frailty better accessibility and independence for their health. Source Getty.

It looks like virtual reality (VR) is offering us more than just an escape from the real world as new studies in the field of geriatrics have shown that VR can be a great tool for the health and wellbeing of older adults.

According to a study led by researchers from McMaster University, VR could pave the way for more accessible rehabilitation programs for frail seniors.

Frailty affects 4.3 per cent of older Australians, with data suggesting that in the coming years, the country’s frail and pre-fail population is expected to increase rapidly.

It’s estimated that by 2027 there will be over 600,000 frail people in Australia, making the need to find solutions to help older people remain independent and living in their own homes, while also reducing the need for health services, a top priority.

In the past there have been concerns raised that VR rehab programs wouldn’t be as effective as in-person home care services, however, this new study disproves this argument.

“Virtually delivered care is an alternative to in-person programs, especially with long wait lists for in-person services, and could help prevent a decline in bodily functions in people living with frailty,” said first author Chinenye Okpara, a PhD candidate at McMaster’s Department of Health Research Methods, Evidence, and Impact.

“Another benefit of virtually-delivered care is that we can reach more people at the same time when running sessions such as physiotherapy or exercise classes, which are typically conducted on a one-to-one basis when delivered in-person.”

Okpara and her team ran the project from August 2020 to November 2021, back when Covid-19 lockdowns were at their peak, and involved 72 participants who were split into either a virtual care group or a control group.

The virtual care group involved twice-weekly live-streamed exercise sessions, one phone call a week from student volunteers, medication review consultations and nutrition counselling via videoconference and protein supplementation. As opposed to the control group, which only received once-weekly calls from volunteers.

The results showed that 81 per cent of the participants in the virtual care group were more than happy with the arrangement and would attend their recommended VR exercise classes.

“With the growing population of older adults…health care needs to develop new, innovative models that support older adults being able to live in their own homes,” said Alexandra Papaioannou, professor in the Department of Medicine at McMaster University and principal investigator of the study.

“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.”

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.

Executive medical director Dr Emily Kirkpartik says everything from reviewing wounds to blood tests can all be done at the patient’s home.

“These patients can be really unwell often needing blood tests, imaging, oxygen therapy. All of that we deliver directly to the patient in their home,” Kirkpatrick said.

“We see this being a true game changer as to how we’re going to deliver future health care in this nation.”

Flinders University is in the process of being able to provide affordable and effective digital care for people with chronic diseases. The $1 million project aims to enhance the efficiency and accessibility of virtual care and telemonitoring, with the goal of reducing emergency department visits, hospital admissions, GP clinic waiting times, and ambulance ramping.

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