V.R. ‘Reminiscence Therapy’ Lets Seniors Relive the Past

Dorothy Yu, a business consultant from Weston, Mass., had the streets around the University of Missouri campus converted to V.R. so her father could see the buildings where he’d been a professor. Now a 90-something resident of Maplewood Senior Living in Massachusetts, it helps him remember the work he did there with pride, both during the session and afterward, she said.

“I’ve never seen anything like the reactions to this technology,” said Brian Geyser, a vice president at Maplewood, which now offers V.R. in each of its 17 communities, which are mostly in the Northeast.

Not right for everyone

To participate in V.R. therapy, you have to strap on a headset that covers your eyes and blocks all light, but for the 3-D world you enter. For some older people who didn’t grow up with computers, such immersive technology can be overwhelming, said Amanda Lazar, a human-computer interaction researcher at the University of Maryland.

“The face is a very personal part of the body,” said Davis Park, vice president of the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing, a nonprofit that brings technology, including V.R., to senior communities. Someone with dementia may worry when their eyes are covered or have trouble understanding the purpose of strapping a machine over their face at all, Mr. Park said.

To mitigate these risks, Sunshine Retirement limits V.R. activities to certain rooms where seniors can move around safely. They also avoid showing seniors places that could set off traumatic memories, said Mr. Eatman, but people’s reactions are tough to predict.

Most providers also limit V.R. reminiscence sessions to 45 minutes, though even at that length, it can cause dizziness and headaches, especially with certain medications. Headsets may also be too heavy for some older adults’ necks or may not account for hearing and vision impairments.

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