WEST KINGSTON – Residents of Kingston Center have been seeing the world a little differently recently. This summer, the rehabilitation and nursing center introduced virtual reality to those in its care, providing an opportunity for residents to pass the time with both sight and sound spectacular–all contained behind a pair of VR goggles. More than a simple means of keeping busy, the use of the technology provides opportunity to increase stimulation and reinforce the positive effect of cognitive function for residents.
“With the VR goggles, you can take residents to places that they have either been to in the past, or never got a chance to go,” said Jeffrey Jacomowitz, public relations director for Centers Health Care, the parent company of Kingston Center. “If a resident enjoys animals, or sitting on the beach, they are able to have an ‘up close’ experience without actually being there. Some residents would love to go to an amusement park but due to health issues etc., they are unable to do so. With the VR goggles, they are able to experience a roller coaster ride while just sitting in their chair.”
With striking realism, virtual reality is capable of taking its viewer on a journey to exotic locations, such as the Amazon, an African safari, the arctic, under the sea or even the depths of space. Users can browse the internet, play games and view films all in the realm of virtual reality. Despite the range of uses VR presents, some tend to stick with the classics.
“I like to hang out with the animals,” said Gloria Corbin, a 66-year-old resident at Kingston Center for just over a year. “I love the animals. I can see them moving and living [in virtual reality] and I have a lot of fun watching them.”
Last Friday afternoon, Corbin slipped on the Oculus Rift, one of the most high-functioning virtual reality headsets, from the comfort of Kingston Center’s living room and, using a National Geographic application, participated in a fully immersive, 360-degree African safari. At one point, Corbin was observing a group of monkeys, one of her favorite animals, when, looking to her left, her face lit up with excitement as a large elephant, another one of her favorites, approached her perspective. She quickly waved hello.
“It feels real,” she said. “I feel like the animals are right there in front of me.”
Shortly after the elephant’s appearance, a giraffe entered the fold and was greeted with another wave and “hello” from Corbin as she sat in a large chair in the nursing home.
“This population doesn’t really get to get out much, go to the beach or go to a zoo, things like that,” said Amy Alvarado, recreation director at Kingston Center. “With virtual reality, we bring it to them and it makes them feel like they’re actually really there and helps them experience things they couldn’t experience otherwise.”
Alvarado noted a popular VR application amongst residents was one that transported the viewer to a virtual beach.
“If you’re in a quiet room, you sit there and hear the noises, the ocean, you can look around and get the sights,” she said. “It feels like you’re by yourself just enjoying the beach. Our residents are trying all different kinds of experiences based on what they’ve enjoyed in their lives. One of our younger residents even wanted to try a roller coaster experience. I’m curious how that will go, I couldn’t even make it through that.”
According to Alvarado, most of the residents at Kingston Center have at least given the virtual reality goggles a try.
“The technology is very different for them,” she said. “But as you can see, they are warming up to it.”
But entertainment is not the only benefit of virtual reality for the elderly. It also can help boost physical and mental health, providing a calming means for those who may be suffering from diseases that cause memory loss or confusion.
“VR provides something for seniors to focus on during exercise, encouraging them to exercise regularly and for longer periods of time, leading to higher overall health and marked cognitive improvement,” said Jacomowitz. “For those with dementia or Alzheimer’s, it’s a great distraction and calms them to relaxation if they are aggravated about something.”
“It can have a soothing effect,” said Alvarado. “It depends on what program you put on. There’s one resident who has trouble seeing and she loves birds. She put the goggles on, and I had loaded a scene where birds were everywhere and when she put them on, she really lit up. I got chills when it happened. She could see all the birds and trees and said she would never let this moment go. It was close enough so that she could see what was happening and the life around her. It was amazing.”
When Corbin’s African safari was concluded, she lifted the VR goggles off of her head, revealing a smiling, exuberant face. When asked how the experience was, Corbin needed only one word.
“Fun,” she said.
The Kingston Center is located at 415 Gardiner Road in West Kingston.