LISBON — For a few minutes, 87-year-old Mary Crowell found freedom on the space shuttle.
Seated in a rolling office chair, a pair of virtual reality goggles over her eyes, she swiveled around and tilted her face up.
“Oh,” she breathed, “that’s pretty.”
“What are you looking at?” asked Carrie Wilson, recreational therapist and activity director at the Lamp Memory Care Center.
“The stars,” Crowell said with a smile.
Not long after that, she was off to the Grand Canyon for a bit of river rafting and rock climbing. She swam with wild dolphins. She toured Iceland.
“It’s something I would ordinarily not see,” said Wilson, who, between raising her large family and working in restaurants, was never able to travel outside New England, let alone outside the Earth’s atmosphere. “I like them all, (but) I think it’s one of my favorite things to do — get into outer space.”
In her real life, Wilson uses a walker and struggles to remember everyday information. She lives with 27 others at the Lamp Memory Care Center, most of them elderly, all of them dealing with end-stage dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
But since October, she and Lamp’s other residents have been able to leave that all behind for a little while, trading the reality of wheelchairs and walkers for the virtual reality of flying cars and trips to Thailand.
For some residents, VR has given them something they never got to experience before: exotic travel and daring escapades.
For others, it’s given them back something they’d lost: interest in the world.
THE RHINOS ARE COMING
Wilson, Lamp’s recreational therapist and activity director, came up with the idea after a friend mentioned VR. He was using it to play games, but she thought it might also be good for something else.
“I got curious. I was like, ‘I wonder if we can use this for dementia?’” she said.
VR headsets envelope a viewer’s vision, immersing them in whatever is playing on its screen. The videos are 360 degrees, so viewers can look up and down and swivel around to see the full environment. A VR program on the sights of Paris, for example, might allow someone to look up at the Eiffel Tower, look down at the sidewalk, and turn around to see the cafe behind them.
Wilson found research on the use of VR with veterans and people with social anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. She also found that other facilities had success using it for exercise or cognitive stimulation with people who had mild-to-moderate dementia. But Lamp caters to people with severe, end-stage dementia. VR seemed to help others, but could it help her people?
Lamp’s owners agreed to try it and see.
Last fall, they contracted with MyndVR, a Texas company that provides VR tech and videos to senior living communities. MyndVR trained Wilson and other staff members and furnished Lamp with five headsets, five cellphones to serve as screens within the headsets and a tablet so Wilson could monitor and control the videos from her own screen. The headsets provided sound, but Lamp also got five headphones for residents who had hearing problems or needed to block out noise while using VR.
The cost for everything: a $250 activation fee plus $449 a month for two years.
In October, Wilson began inviting small groups of residents to try virtual reality. She gave the activity a less technical-sounding nickname: “watching some videos.”
It was immediately successful.
“It’s been so fun just to see the response, especially (since) we weren’t sure with our population how it would go over,” Wilson said.
Residents — most between 70 and 90 years old — became instantly entranced by the sweeping, 360-degree landscape views, the international tours, the ability to stroll through a garden or take in a concert or get close to wildlife. Some didn’t want to leave when VR time was over.
“When they are in the video, some of them will get very immersed into it,” Wilson said. “There will be rhinos coming and they’ll be like, ‘Don’t step on my toes!’ and they’ll pick up their feet.”
Of the 28 residents, 26 enjoyed VR. Two weren’t comfortable having something on their heads.
It quickly became apparent that VR could do more than just entertain. It also calmed residents who were agitated or anxious — people who typically would have been medicated. Lamp is now working on using VR as its first go-to option for residents who are having a bad day.
“We’ve had three residents so far that have been able to use this instead (of medication),” Wilson said. “We brought them in, they calmed down, they were happy and it lasted.”
Wilson also found that VR enchanted residents who were otherwise disengaged with the world.
On one recent morning, 92-year-old Yvonne Vachon sat in a padded medical wheelchair in a corner of the activity room, head down and eyes shut. When nursing assistant Sarah Clark knelt down and asked if she’d like to watch a video. Vachon mumbled “yeah,” but kept her eyes closed.
A few minutes later, she was touring a virtual Thailand monastery. A few minutes after that, she was attending a piano concerto. With each new video, Vachon grew more animated, more talkative.
Knowing that Vachon had spent some of her younger days farming, Wilson and Clark started a video that put her in the middle of a farm. Soon, Vachon was laughing and pointing at the floor at virtual animals. She spoke to Clark in a low rumble, more enthusiastic than she’d been since before she was rolled into the activity room.
“She likes the farm one,” Clark said.
Virtual reality had, ironically, gotten her to engage with someone in actual reality.
So far, there have been no side effects from the VR program. Wilson worried about motion sickness at first, but staff members take precautions — residents don’t use the headsets on an empty stomach or when they aren’t feeling well — and no one has reported getting sick from it. She was also concerned that residents, who can have a tenuous grasp of reality, might be further confused by virtual reality, but that hasn’t been a problem, either.
“The minute it’s off, they’re fine,” Wilson said.
Because so many residents can’t or don’t speak, staff members are taught to read body language. That’s helped them gauge when a VR video is overwhelming or boring.
“If a resident appears to be uncomfortable or agitated, I usually try to switch the video first. If it continues, we take it off and they have a break,” said Wilson, who uses her tablet to watch over what each resident is seeing. “We always debrief at the end of a session. We’ll take several minutes and talk about what they saw, what they liked, what they didn’t.”
Animals videos and videos with kids are popular. Residents love the Thailand monastery tour and almost anything involving nature, including videos that put them in Iceland, on a farm or at the Grand Canyon. Some people love the excitement of skydiving or taking off in a flying car, while others prefer the relaxation of fishing or strolling through a garden.
“A lot of this is trial and error. There are some videos I think they’re really going to like and they don’t, and others they do,” Wilson said.
Videos generally last two to eight minutes, though the Grand Canyon tour runs for 17 minutes. Dozens of videos are available at any one time, and more are added frequently. MyndVR recently added an eight-part tour of Route 66 — a series designed to delight people who remember the iconic road.
It’s unclear how many nursing homes and senior living facilities in Maine use virtual reality. The Augusta-based Maine Health Care Association, a nonprofit advocate for long-term care facilities, doesn’t track the technology, but spokeswoman Nadine Grasso said she’s thinking now it should.
“Just a quick survey would be really cool to sort of see where folks are,” she said. “But my . . . general sense is that facilities would be using it to varying degrees. It sounds to me like Lamp might be more progressive in terms of doing it.”
Lamp is the first in Maine to use MyndVR in particular.
Wilson, who couldn’t find a lot of research on VR and end-stage dementia patients, is now compiling her own data. So far, just based on how happy everyone’s been with it over the past few months, she’d recommend VR to others.
“For a lot of our residents it’s a way to engage in something when they don’t have fine motor skills to do crafts, they don’t have the capability to do walking group,” she said. “It’s kind of the only thing they really have to engage them.”
Crowell, getting ready to skydive, said she’d recommend it, too.
“Sure,” she said. “Why not?”
Jeff Haines, 59, left, and Ronaldo “Bert” Bertrand, 88, right, watch scenes in their virtual reality goggles as recreational therapist, Carrie Wilson, center, curates their journeys from a tablet at Lamp Memory Care Center in Lisbon. (Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn)
Carrie Wilson, recreational therapist at the Lamp Memory Care Center in Lisbon, scrolls through the menu of virtual reality adventures as the residents assemble in the activity room. (Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn)
Mary Crowell, 87, looks up at the scenery she’s viewing in her virtual reality headset at the Lamp Memory Care Center during a recent virtual reality activity. (Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn)
Carrie Wilson, recreational therapist at the Lamp Memory Care Center in Lisbon, displays the virtual reality underwater adventure that Mary Cromwell, foreground, Jeff Haines, left, and Bert Bertrand are watching through their headsets. (Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn)