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VR triggers happy memories for seniors

LAKE CHARLES, La. — Virtual reality isn’t just for gamers. The same technology that lets users battle monsters in mythical worlds is proving useful for local residents diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Katrina Dunn, executive director of The Verandah Retirement Community, said their residents began using Oculus Quest virtual reality headsets just before the coronaviris pandemic hit.

“It’s a headset they put on that goes around their head and over their eyes and it’s like they are looking at a TV screen up close but it is interactive with them,” Dunn said.

Dunn said the facility began integrating virtual reality into therapy for their Alzheimer’s residents and it’s become a useful tool in helping them with their memory as well as encouraging them to be more active.

When wearing the goggles, users see a simulated, three-dimensional world, Dunn said.

“We take residents to the side lobby of our memory care unit where there’s not much distractions, we’ll set it all up for them and then we’ll use different programs like traveling — such as African safaris and going to Paris — to deep-sea diving and nature walks. It offers all the possible interests that you can think of and once we get it on them, we’re able to see different changes in them.”

Dunn said one resident loves the travel features because she is thrilled when she’s in a crowd.

“We’ll see an immediate change in her demeanor because apparently she likes being a social butterfly,” she said.

As residents are using the virtual reality they are asked questions by the staff such as what they are seeing around them and what may be over to their sides.

“They can walk around, turn around and do all these different things like they’re actually there in the area,” Dunn said. “This provides a memory exercise for them that requires more physical movement and they’re able to explore and satisfy that inquisitive nature they have.”

She said it also helps them with anxiety and their moods.

“They really are more elated afterward,” Dunn said.

For those who have previously traveled with their families on vacations, returning to those sites using virtual reality has sparked memory flashes as well.

“It’s triggering memories, and it’s triggering happy memories whether it’s from childhood or a vacation they have done before with their families. For others, it’s knocking something off their bucket list goals,” Dunn said.

As staff members learn what the residents like and respond better to, more programs are being added to the virtual reality offerings.

“For those who like deep-sea diving, we love that it gives them that extra physical movement because they feel like they are really there diving,” she said. “But we have to be extra cautious that they don’t trip on anything because they are actually going through the diving motions. They get so excited with it.”

She said she makes sure the selected programs cater to the residents and do not spark any fears.

“As we see new residents move in, we find options that they like and their families share ideas with us and we’re able to get our hands on it,” Dunn said.

All but two of the 30 residents in the memory care unit have experienced the virtual reality activity at least once a week, sometimes more.

“It’s definitely a favorite,” she said. “We’ll also go outside on the porch for those who want to go on the safari and they’re able to hear things outside that make them feel like they’re there, as well. The possibilities are endless.”

She said using the sets also helps the residents feel less like they are in quarantine because they are still able to go exploring.

“Another special thing about virtual reality is for those residents who are nonverbal, you can tell by their mood that they are still feeling that happy feeling. We can tell by their behaviors and their moods that this is doing what we had hoped it would do,” she said.

When the sessions are over, staff members continue to ask the residents questions about their trip to keep them engaged and to help them retain those memories.

“It’s limitless in what it can do and it’s opening up a whole new world for them,” Dunn said. “We’re seeing a light bulb go off for them and it’s wonderful to see.”

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