How virtual reality is making a difference for lonely elderly

The elderly population in the Netherlands has only increased since the 1950s and continues to grow into the biggest group within the Dutch population over the coming decades. Despite the growth of this population the mental health of the elderly has been degrading. Loneliness is one of the major issues seniors have in western society, where more than half of people aged over 55 feel a sense of loneliness and that they have lost connection to people around them. In the Netherlands alone, over 1 million elderly are classified as lonely and over 500.000 are classified as severely lonely, and struggle with depression and social anxiety. Besides health issues, the decreasing mobility that also comes naturally with old age, affects the capabilities of the elderly to reach out and connect to the outside world. This increases the chance of a collapse in their social networks. Loneliness also increases with old age, because of natural experiences that are not easy for most, such as the passing of loved ones, but also the experience of a constant monotonous environment. Loneliness also increases with older age, 63% of elderly aged over 85 are lonely and is more severe in widowers, singles and divorcees.

This increasing and serious problem has been on our radar for several years. To tackle this, we developed EldersVR at Hack the Planet, a virtual reality platform that provides an innovative way to combat loneliness. This VR experience helps decrease thresholds lonely elderly may have and transports this fragile audience to places all around the world, which are hard to reach. EldersVR started when the municipality of The Hague organized a hackathon in 2016; Hacking Elderly. Hack the Planet participated and won the contest and developed EldersVR in collaboration with X-TRA Welzijn. EldersVR is a Virtual Reality platform tailored to the elderly and is divided in a Shared and Home experience. Where shared is meant to transport the elderly to unique places, home provides unique VR videos of how for example a mobility scooter works or how the local activity center looks like. The elderly often feel surpassed in the context of technology and feel like it is all going too fast. They experience technology as something anti-social and harmful for social connections. Therefore, importantly, EldersVR focuses on user-friendliness and conversation-starting footage, so that seniors are not scared by the seemingly advanced technology. These experiences have an ice breaking and threshold lowering effect and result into valuable conversation material. 

Watch Yahya’s talk about EldersVR during the BorderSessions

Yahya, one of Hack the Planets team members, did a study with the University of Amsterdam, which provided an overview of literature about the elderly and virtual reality, as well as a case study on the EldersVR platform. The case study contains 30 extensive semi-structured open-ended interviews with both the elderly as other key stakeholders.

Results show that VR platforms indeed can decrease the sense of loneliness with the elderly and have an overall positive effect on cognitive and emotional wellbeing. The use of technology by senior citizens increases interpersonal connectivity and organizational involvement and reduces levels of isolation, strengthens social networks, especially for elderly coping with impaired mobility.

Virtual reality environments have shown to stimulate the practice of communicative and cognitive skills and offer a means for senior citizens to experience various scenes in an individual and safe way. VR has proven to be significant for one of the biggest issues senior citizens face: social isolation and loneliness. VR has also demonstrated to be an effective treatment of memory deficits with the elderly. VR memory training may improve memory function by enhancing focused attention, improve general cognitive functioning, and verbal memory. VR scenery was also found to stimulate autobiographical and episodic memory. Exercise platforms using virtual reality are also methods for improving cognitive function, muscle strength, and balance of senior citizens. Creating a strong virtual presence can shift attitude towards exercise with the elderly, increasing the benefits even more.

The elderly and the people assisting them experience virtual reality as being a rather interesting and exciting tool. People that have used the platform believe that it is a good tool to use to both relax and transport the elderly into new environments, as well as decreasing social thresholds senior citizens might have. During the interviews, the elderly often got used to VR fairly quickly and were comfortable enough to look around within the first minute.

All together, the EldersVR platform is looking to expand. Not only by making it available on more locations, but also by providing new unique content, like culturally sensitive videos. You can fill in the contact form at www.eldersvr.com to get in touch with us about this project.