VALENCIA — Virtual reality has long been promised as the next frontier for games, sports and entertainment, and now medical professionals have found another use for the technology: treating patients suffering from dementia.
Staff at the St. Barnabas Health System have spent the past few months working with five participants in the Memory Care Program to evaluate a new virtual reality system. They have reported improved mood, decreased anxiety and increased sociability, “wonderment,” and expression in participants.
“Our mantra in memory care is increase joy and decrease anxiety,” said Marjorie Hobaugh, manager of Memory Care services at St. Barnabas. “We certainly observed it right away with virtual reality.”
Program participants engaged in 15- to 20-minute sessions several times a week, strapping on a headset with a smart phone inside that acts as a screen. The user can then turn his or her head to look around the scene.
Staff said it's an immersive and engaging experience, and that feedback from residents has been positive.
Hobaugh said participants also showed a dramatic improvement in sociability, cognitive functioning and, most importantly, happiness.
Joan Geibel, a St. Barnabas resident, has been using the virtual reality headset a few times a week.
Through the headset, Geibel attends concerts, zooms through swamps on speedboats and swims with dolphins, all in the comfort of the St. Barnabas facility.
Geibel said she likes the videos with music and the chance to experience something that she's never seen before.
Recently, she started with a program about dogs.
Memory care specialist Anna Foust helped Geibel strap the headset on and used a tablet to select the program.
A song in the background started as the video switched on and a dozen puppies rushed around the viewer.
Each video is filmed with a 360-degree camera, letting viewers look around the scene as if they were really there.
On the tablet, staff can see the participant's field of view.
Geibel said she likes the chance to see new things and prefers not to repeat videos.
“I don't want to see something I already saw,” Geibel said.
The video ended and another started, a program about endangered lions.
The tablet screen showed Geibel's view as she looked at the different lions walking around the camera and interacting with a trainer, seemingly just a few yards away.
Joan Geibel's son, Bill Geibel, said he has seen the programs improve his mother's mood and allow her to experience things she never could in person.
“It makes my mom happy. So, that's always a good thing,” he said. “It takes her to someplace she can't go.”
Foust said one reason residents enjoy the programs is how enveloping it feels — whether traveling to foreign cities or the bottom of the ocean.
Some residents can lose track of the fact that it's a video, that they're not really there. She said the use of headphones enhances this feeling.
Use of the virtual reality system, a proven success in the Memory Care Program, will be expanded.