Virtual Reality Comes to Life in Senior Living R

By Karen Purze

esearchers have been studying virtual reality (VR) for decades and have discovered proven ben-

efits for pain management, anxiety treat- ment, training, and rehabilitation. But does virtual reality have a place outside the lab? More and more companies are working with innovators in senior living to find out. Embodied Labs, a Chicago-based com-

pany, aims to use immersive VR experiences to increase empathy in health care providers and trainees. The company has created a learning platform to show people firsthand what it’s like to have—and live with—a va- riety of conditions. Their first two virtual reality “labs” focus on macular degenera- tion, a condition that results in worsening or blurred vision, or even vision loss, typically affecting older adults. One lab, called ‘The Alfred Lab,’ simulates a man named Al- fred’s daily experiences living with hearing and vision impairments. While Carrie Shaw, Embodied Labs chief

executive officer, sees a broad market for the technology, the initial focus is on academic and educational uses. “It’s a bit easier to do the benchmarking studies to prove the effectiveness [in these environments],” she said. One goal of using VR as part of the curriculum in the academic environment is to promote better learning outcomes. A pilot study conducted at the University

of Illinois at Chicago demonstrated that it can improve outcomes. Student trainees who went through the Embodied Labs VR experience demonstrated “a more holistic perspective of what could affect the ability of an older adult to complete a cognitive test, such as motor skills and audiovisual problems—not just cognitive and neurolog- ical disorders,” according to an Embodied Labs white paper. The study also showed that trainees had an increased interest in geriatrics after exposure to the lab, which

could be one step toward addressing the expected shortage of workers to support the aging population. The technology is used to increase empa-

thy in health care professionals, too. “We’ve had experienced doctors try it and say they were shocked at how frustrated and ner- vous they felt during the experience. They weren’t expecting to have such a strong emotional reaction,” said Shaw.

VR for employee training Chicago Methodist Senior Services (CMSS) was one of the earliest adopters of the technology outside of an academic environ- ment. Ann Brennan, director of volunteer services at CMSS, tested the technology in late 2016. She described being initially skep- tical, unsure that it would be better than the homegrown service learning program they

already had in place. What made using the VR program different? “The difference is with this: you’re in their shoes,” she said. “You become that person. That’s the difference.” CMSS ran a pilot of The Alfred Lab as

part of an employee training program, and Brennan was not the only one impressed. In fact, CMSS president and chief executive officer Bill Lowe decided to support Em- bodied Labs’ development of a module on memory loss. “After talking to Carrie and experiencing the ‘We Are Alfred’ program, helping Embodied Labs to develop a VR experience based around memory loss was a clear fit for CMSS. Providing the best possible memory care is at the core of what we do, and we felt investing was the best way for us to help move this groundbreaking tool for better memory care forward,” said


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