Last Thursday, Juel Burr went skydiving in the Swiss alps.
Well, kind of.
With a virtual reality headset securely strapped to her face, Burr — a resident at Fort Collins memory care facility Aspyre Rock Creek — skydived virtually with images of the alps whirling around her.
“It looks like your parachute just opened,” said Carina Vargas, Aspyre Rock Creek’s life enrichment coordinator, as she sat — iPad in hand — next to a beaming Burr. On the tablet, images of the alps sped by, showing Vargas what Burr was experiencing.
The skydiving scenario is just one of 200 virtual travel, recreation, music and arts experiences Vargas can take Aspyre Rock Creek residents through thanks to a newly-formed partnership between the Fort Collins facility and MyndVR, a virtual reality company that provides virtual reality services for older adults.
Earlier this year, Aspyre Rock Creek applied for the donation of one of MyndVR’s virtual reality headsets, which were being given out to senior living communities across the country as its residents faced unprecedented social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Vargas said.
Aspyre Rock Creek is the only facility in Colorado to receive a headset, which Vargas now uses twice a week with small groups of Aspyre Rock Creek’s approximately 35 residents, all of whom have some form of dementia.
Before COVID-19, Vargas’ weeks were full of resident excursions to Denver museums and local restaurants. Now, under increased public health guidance for senior facilities, Aspyre Rock Creek residents are largely locked down, with limited scenic drives in small groups being their only ventures outside the facility.
And now, of course, they have their twice-weekly tours through virtual reality.
“We thought this (virtual reality headset program) would be a good way for our residents to get out and to travel and explore without jeopardizing their safety,” Vargas said. “And they love it.”
Using the headset, Aspyre Rock Creek residents can travel to New York City, sit in on a goat yoga class or play in a football game as part of MyndVR’s virtual reality scenarios.
“It definitely lifts their spirits,” Vargas said. “It’s really improved their quality of life, especially during these times.”
With many senior living and care facilities locked down from the outside world amid the COVID-19 pandemic, that added safety can also mean increased social isolation among seniors.
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“A researcher from UCLA (named Dr. Steve Cole) said, ‘loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases,'” Colorado State University psychology professor Deana Davalos said. “And that’s one of the biggest issues people maybe don’t consider with COVID-19. Social isolation can have really profound physiological and psychological effects on older adults.”
Davalos, who runs The Aging Clinic of the Rockies through CSU’s department of psychology, said many facilities, programs and mental health agencies are looking at ways to combat these issues of social isolation.
Across the country, that’s taken the form of “hug stations” set up at care facilities to allow their senior residents to hug loved ones through a plastic barrier.
Closer to home in Fort Collins, The Aging Clinic of the Rockies has been hosting Zoom gatherings for older adults including bouts of virtual bingo or virtual tours to places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Davalos said.
Animal therapy team volunteers at CSU’s Human-Animal Bond in Colorado (HABIC) outreach program have been sending a steady stream of letters and photos to keep seniors updated on the lives of their therapy pets.
“Lots of people are trying different things,” Davalos said.
“One of the biggest issues with older adults is that a lot of these (ideas) are technology-based, so if you don’t have someone to support you with that, a lot of people can fall through the cracks,” Davalos added.
Davalos said she encourages older adults to try new things to combat social isolation. She also encourages their family members to be open-minded.
“We have a lot of experiences where people say, ‘You know, my grandparent doesn’t like technology,’ but I hope they don’t shut the door on any one experience, because this (pandemic) doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.”
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Back at Aspyre Rock Creek, Vargas said she dutifully takes notes about residents’ experiences with the facility’s virtual reality headset.
One day, she recalled, a resident — who is largely nonverbal — strapped on the headset. To Vargas’ surprise, he started looking around the room smiling.
“And he kept saying, ‘This is amazing, this is great, this is awesome,’ ” Vargas said. “That was exciting for us to see.”
Another resident always clamors to use the headset so she can watch musical performances, which are popular scenarios given that “songs and music tend to stay with our residents,” Vargas said.
“Whenever you play music, they always know the lyrics,” she added — especially to MyndVR’s Christmas caroler virtual reality scenario.
In it, viewers are treated to an up-close Christmastime performance, which is appropriate as the holidays near.
And thanks to technology, it’s one tradition that won’t disappear this year.
Erin Udell reports on news, culture, history and more for the Coloradoan. Contact her at [email protected] The only way she can keep doing what she does is with your support. If you subscribe, thank you. If not, sign up for a subscription to the Coloradoan today.
This article originally appeared on Fort Collins Coloradoan: Virtual reality program helps Fort Collins seniors battle social isolation amid COVID-19