VR FOR DISCOVERY

New adventures to break old routines.

Many people who move into continuing care facilities often grieve the loss of something: a familiar home, a previous community, even their personal independence. To help ease this major life transition, care facilities like Northwood look for opportunities to provide engaging activities for aging adults and anyone experiencing disabilities, especially in ways that give patients a sense of belonging and the ability to make their own choices.

Set in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Northwood is reimagining recreation, not only inviting community members to explore new places, but also encouraging them to discover perspectives they wouldn't normally be able to access. Through VR, community members can revisit nostalgic places from their past, such as the Grand Canyon, and even explore uncharted territories like outer space.

“VR essentially opens the door to the world for anybody who can’t leave the site,” says Natasha Handspiker, Northwood’s manager of community engagement.

One community member, Larry, has taken to carrying his own headset in his walker, sharing it with anyone willing to try it on. Larry also started his own VR club, a weekly group where Larry encourages other community members to take the headset for a spin. “You might not get it the first night, but the next thing, you’ve got it,” Larry says of VR. “And you have a ball with it.”

Handspiker describes VR as an equalizer — an opportunity to step outside, even if virtually, a communal environment of nearly 1,000 people and into an experience of their own choosing. For people facing the challenges of aging or living with a disability, the sensation of climbing a mountain or scuba diving can be liberating. And through groups like Larry’s weekly meetup, VR can encourage social activity, with residents exchanging stories about their experiences.

Northwood’s VR program is gaining in popularity, as evidenced by increased frequency of headset recharges, and the organization is exploring how VR may serve as a tool for more than entertainment. For example, Northwood is working with researchers to understand how emerging technologies like VR may play a role in community members’ well-being.

“We all deal with things in our lives,” Handspiker says. “These folks are dealing with a little bit more. They have health concerns, some might have financial concerns, and some might have relationship concerns. This provides them an opportunity to just kind of escape that.”