Last Tuesday I was invited on to Radio Scotland to talk about the benefits of ‘Virtual Reality’ for older people in Scotland especially in our care homes. As regular readers of this blog might know I am someone who has long held an interest in all things technology and digital, not least artificial intelligence and robotics. Both during and after this week’s programme I began to reflect on the extent to which we have not fully tapped into the potential of VR for both older people living in care homes but maybe especially for those in our communities. This will be an issue which we will be considering in a lot more depth during the Scottish Care hosted virtual Care Tech 4 event which will be held this coming Thursday and Friday. It promises to be a great couple of days which folks can drop in and out of with a range of up-to-date demonstrations, presentations and exhibits as well as fascinating panel discussions. For more details see https://scottishcare.org/care-tech-4/
But for now, as my title asks should we care about virtual reality?
A lot has been said and written about VR over the years not least about its role in gaming technology, of which Scotland is one of the major centres of innovation, development and invention. There has been less written about the benefits and drawbacks of VR for the care and support of citizens regardless of their age. Indeed, there have, I believe, been around 5,000 academic articles in the last three years alone about VR but few of these have been about the use of VR in our care and support sectors.
We can make some general conclusions from the research that has been done to date along with anecdotal evidence in Scotland which in broad terms suggests that VR is of real benefit, in some instances of very significant benefit. One of the reasons research suggests that VR is an asset is because of the immersive interaction capabilities which VR enables and allows.
In my experience I think we can broadly suggest there are the following positive benefits of using VR in care homes and in someone’s own home:
Firstly, there are clear health benefits to be gained in terms of exercise, increased physical mobility and movement. So, the recently developed innovation from an Edinburgh entrepreneur working with local care homes has helped individuals to remain mobile and to exercise. See https://www.edinburghlive.co.uk/news/edinburgh-news/edinburgh-entrepreneur-uses-virtual-reality-21228219and https://www.digitechtive.co.uk/care-home-vr
Readers might also be interested in the work of the Norwegian group Motitech which enables people to exercise whilst re-visiting parts of the country which they might be familiar with and evidences real positive outcomes re increased muscle strength, balancer and breathing.
More research needs to be undertaken in this area because studies have tended to focus on rehabilitation and physical function including gait, balance, falls prevention and pain management. They have also tended to focus on settings such as care homes where there is support in their use but the real potential future benefit for physical health will undoubtedly be in the community and ensuring people can remain as independent for as long as possible.
VR in any of its formats is not a panacea but studies are detailing increasingly significant benefits especially if used as part of a wider programme os health and wellbeing, rehabilitation and exercise. See https://www.jmir.org/2020/6/e17331/
Secondly, there is growing evidence to suggest that the use of VR can improve psychological health and well-being. The use of VR in the support and care of many people with dementia has led to a reduction in agitation, improvements in behaviour which challenges, and a reduction in the use of psychotropic interventions.
Thirdly, the use of VR as a memory tool has heralded real benefits. Used well it can bring people back to experiences and encounters, to places and events, which have been significant in their past and which can help in terms of cognitive recall and stress alleviation.
Fourthly, VR has great strengths as an educational tool, enabling its immersive approach to support any individual regardless of their age, to gain new understanding and knowledge. Contrary to popular opinion and stereotype many older people both in care homes and in their own homes, thrive on new experience, learning and insights.
Lastly, they enable people to interact and be in touch with people they know or those who they might want to get to know. Whilst pad technology has been dominant in maintaining contact especially during the pandemic there is a real potential in the use of VR.
Now there are clearly challenges but these are capable of being addressed and overcome. Wearing a headset for too long can cause confusion or headaches; there is an importance of being aware of factors which might impact balance and hearing. There needs to be an emphasis on adequate support and maximising accessibility for individuals with reduced cognitive abilities.
But perhaps the biggest challenge for the use of an VR is cost. Whilst basic headsets are now retailing for below £30 some devices can stretch into the 1000s. More pragmatically excellent headsets can be purchased as part of support packages for the low £100s. Nevertheless, there is a clear fiscal cost both in equipment and in the support needed for people to sue them to their maximum benefit. Therefore, when we are designing and developing services and supports, we should now as a matter of priority be considering the cost benefits of using VR alongside a whole suite of other technologies.
Doubtless the above and many issues will be explored during CareTech4 and throughout Scottish Care’s work on technology and digital.
Technology and VR especially is here to say – it is too important a tool to be left to gaming alone – we really need as a whole community to start caring about VR.