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Virtual Reality Aimed At The Elderly Finds New Fans
Posted on Jun 29, 2016 by David
By Kara Platoni
(above: Virginia Anderlini (right) was the first private client to try out Dr. Sonya Kim's new virtual reality program for the elderly, and says she's eager to see more. Kim's handful of programs are still at the demo stage. Kara Platoni/KQED hide caption
toggle caption Kara Platoni/KQED )
Virginia Anderlini is 103 years old, and she is about to take her sixth trip into virtual reality.
In real life, she is sitting on the sofa in the bay window of her San Francisco assisted-living facility. Next to her, Dr. Sonya Kim gently tugs the straps that anchor the headset over Anderlini's eyes.
But in the virtual world, Anderlini is on a Hawaiian beach, and it's sunset, and she is surrounded by a glistening sea and a molten, purple-red sky. If she looks up, she sees the fronds of an enormous palm tree, and falling rainbow specks that dance in the air like the light from a disco ball.
"Hello, it's so nice to see you again," comes Kim's pre-recorded voice from inside the headset. "It's such a beautiful day today, isn't it?"
"Oh my goodness!" says Anderlini, sounding delighted. She turns her head slowly from side to side, taking in the details of the virtual landscape: little grass shacks, twists of driftwood, outcroppings of volcanic rock. "Hey, that's really pretty!"
"In the back, look at this," she continues, wriggling around to see the imaginary world behind her. "Terry, you've got to see this, too!" she calls to her son, who is watching nearby.
For a virtual reality entrepreneur, Kim has an unusual target audience: the elderly. Anderlini is the first private client for Kim's Aloha VR program, which Kim envisions as a way to help people relax, an alternative to endlessly watching TV and a change of scenery for those who can't get out much.
And for those unhappy in the present day, virtual reality might provide an escape into an immersive other world that "allows them to forget their chronic pain, anxiety, the fact that they are alone," Kim says. In VR, she says, her company has found "a new care modality to bring to a senior care setting like this, to inspire them to live another day, where they're happy."
'No One Cares About Me'
A former emergency room doctor, Kim found her way to virtual reality through a series of tough requests. A few years ago, she was running a house-call practice when she received a call for help from a woman whose 88-year-old mother had stopped eating and drinking. As a result, she'd made three trips to the ER in a month, racking up more than $50,000 in medical bills.
Kim knew that seniors often end up in the hospital for preventable conditions — like dehydration, malnutrition and electrolyte imbalances — exacerbated by loneliness and lack of self-care. And when she asked the older woman why she'd stopped eating, Kim recalls, her patient replied: " 'No one loves me. No one cares about me. I don't matter anymore. Why should I eat, why should I drink, why should I live? I just want to die today.' "
"When I was driving back home from that visit, I couldn't stop sobbing," Kim says. "As a single woman without any kids, I thought, when I'm her age, who's going to call me? Who's going to take care of me?"
That interaction led Kim to found One Caring Team, in 2014. Staffers regularly phone seniors at home to check on their mood, medications and appointments, and prompt them to chat about positive subjects, like what makes them happy or what they could do bring joy to someone else.
But then one day, as Kim was giving a talk about her service, a man in the audience asked: "What about my mom?" His mother has dementia, he said, and couldn't have a coherent phone conversation. Finding a solution for his mom, Kim says, became her "new homework assignment."
By chance, Kim had been reading about virtual reality and decided to attend a VR mixer in San Francisco; someone let her use an Oculus headset to walk through a virtual garden, and she "totally fell in love" with the medium. Convinced the older patients would like it, too, she borrowed a friend's headset and took it to a preventive care conference. By the time she was done, she already had directors of assisted-living facilities asking about pricing.
That convinced her that the concept could sell, but she wanted to make sure VR could actually make people feel better.
Easing Chronic Pain, Anxiety and Depression
"There are over 100 clinical research papers that are already published that show proven positive clinical outcomes using VR in managing chronic pain, anxiety and depression," she says. "And in dementia patients, all those three elements are very common."