How immersion in VR can help older adults cope with pain

When it comes to initial impressions, most elders think that it is some sort of mind control device or a snorkeling mask! But once we tell them what it is, they try to link it to devices they may have used or seen in the past. For example, one person thought of the View-Master (a toy that allowed the user to switch between a variety of pictures) that was released in the 60s, when he saw the Oculus Go. This helps with the familiarity issue as most of them would get an idea of what it could be like and immediately drop their defenses! However, like everyone, they think that this would only be useful for playing video games.

Once they put on the headset, we played a couple of video experiences. At first, they were a bit closed off in terms of body language. I can imagine they felt a bit uneasy as interacting with new and unfamiliar technology can be quite an unnerving experience. A couple of seconds later, they slowly started to look around and talk about what they’re seeing. “Oh what beautiful scenery” one participant said, with a huge smile on her face. They physically twisted and moved around to see what wonders might be hiding behind them.

When they started, all participants seemed dull and unenthusiastic but a couple of minutes into the experience, they smiled and started explaining to us what an amazing experience it is and that they feel like they’re actually there. I would say that 90% of them tried to interact with their surroundings even though the experience was just a 360 video. This lets us know that the elders are completely immersed in another reality. The most fascinating thing I saw was that bed-ridden/wheelchair-bound participants moved their torso and feet a lot during their experience and this extended range of motion was previously unseen by us and their guardians. Virtual reality did indeed help them focus less on their body pains and more on what was around them. This, in turn, changed their mood and created a wonderful atmosphere in our testing space.

Once their experience was done, every single one of the participants said that they did not experience any pain while they were immersed in VR and that they finally got the change in scenery that they desperately needed. All of them said that technology like this can indeed be used for rehabilitative purposes and for helping terminally ill patients cope with their physical and mental pain.

The human body tends to weaken as the years’ pass and this prevents elders from trying out real-world experiences like travelling to different countries or participating in various activities. Their movement is heavily restricted and is piled on top of age-related diseases such as Dementia, Visuospatial Memory Decline, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and Osteoarthritis. This can put an extraordinary amount of stress on their physical and mental health. State breaks induced by virtual reality can distract the elders from their pain and help them complete activities of daily living.

From my observations, VR encourages elders to interact with the virtual environment, promoting extended ranges of motion that they are not used to in their daily lives. When such interactions are combined with controlled activities, it can highly enhance the elder’s balance and circulation of blood flow helping them to move more effortlessly in their daily lives.

Photo by William Krause on Unsplash

After a couple of sessions of VR therapy, most elders remarked that it had significantly improved their mood and that they felt like moving around was a bit less tedious. It sparked their passion for adventuring and they were excited to know if there were any more realistic experiences. Some also wanted to play VR games! I noticed that they seemed a lot happier than the time I first met them. They were more extroverted and could convey their emotions and thoughts at the snap of a finger. Some elders who suffered from Dementia also had vague memories of their experience. Although they don’t recall much, it proves that VR therapy, on some level, can indeed benefit elders suffering from memory loss.

When it comes to helping people cope with pain (in general), VR has recently been used in very interesting ways. A study was conducted to assess the effectiveness of using virtual reality to reduce anxiety in people going through dental extractions and the recorded data demonstrated that 65% of the people found VR to be beneficial in reducing anxiety levels¹.

Another study sought to explore the use of heartbeat-enhanced immersive virtual reality (VR) to treat complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) by combining mirror therapy, VR and the latest research in multisensory body processing. The results show that heartbeat-enhanced virtual reality (HEVR) significantly reduces pain ratings, improves motor limb function and increases force strength in patients with CRPS².

Although VR has many uses and applications, I believe that using it enhance older adults’ lives is of the utmost importance. Extreme immersion in another reality creates a total state break that helps elders cope with their pain and engage their mental faculties more effectively.

In the later stages of one’s life, it is important to ensure that their mood and daily life are not heavily affected by their age and using VR can help them with that. Due to the mental state breaking effects of VR, it can be said that turning up the immersion, to a certain point, can indeed bring a sense of joy and calmness to elders.

Now that VR is slowly gaining popularity in multiple sectors, we can see how it can help people not only improve tedious daily activities but also take care of one’s mental health. In the field of therapy for older adults, we should start creating new fantastical experiences that bring them out of reality and into a new world where they have the freedom to do whatever they want without being bound by physical restrictions.


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