Leopold “Bud” Weidlein, 99, wondered how far down he was diving Wednesday morning as he encountered tropical, red fish. Sitting — yes, sitting — next to him, Marvin Greenberg took in the sight of of Michelangelo’s David statue in Florence.
Across the room, Helen Fenza was maneuvering through a crowded bar where Frank Sinatra was performing and pointing up to her New York apartment outside. In another scene, Fenza found herself surrounded by romping kittens.
Virtual reality enabled them to set aside their canes and walkers for some globe-trotting from a living room-type setting at La Posada, the senior living community near The Gardens Mall.
Residents can put on headphones and virtual reality goggles powered by a smart phone for 15 minutes a day to experience different scenarios. MyndVR, a Dallas-based company that focuses on creating “entertaining and therapeutic experiences” for adults 55 years old and older, develops the content.
The two-minute, 360-degree videos also included a whitewater-rafting trip the Grand Canyon and a brush with elephants on an African savanna.
“Holy mackerel, this is fantastic!” Weidlein said as he reached out, as if to touch one of the elephants. “Uh oh, I scared him,” he added as the elephant flexed his trunk and slowly backed away.
La Posada staff limits the residents to about 15 minutes of virtual reality activity per day so that they don’t become disoriented. They’re also cognizant that the whitewater rafting excursion can make some people dizzy.
It was no match for Weidlein, a retired Navy pilot. He was impressed by the sensation of motion on the raft.
“Have you ever been to Scotland? Edinburgh Castle?” La Posada Wellness Director Rick Minichino asked him. “I’m going to remind you what it looks like.”
“Oh, what a view!” Weidlein exclaimed moments later.
Virtual reality different than TV in that viewers are isolated with the scene and don’t see their immediate surroundings.
“You’re sort of out of yourself,” Greenberg explained. “It takes your mind off everything else.”
La Posada is one of six communities nationwide that’s part of MyndVR’s pilot program that began 10 months ago to test out virtual reality equipment and experiences on 300 seniors, the company’s co-founder Chris Brickler said. So far, the virtual reality industry has been more focused on millennials and video game players, he said.
The developers were surprised when they saw 85-year-old women who wanted to jump out of an airplane in a skydiving experience and older men who wanted a race car-driving experience, he said.
At another pilot location, a man with macular degeneration reported the virtual reality content appears outside of the area affected by the eye disease, so he’s able to enjoy it, Brickler said. Others have said the dizziness associated with Parkinson’s disease faded during the experience and for some time afterward, he said.
“The promise of virtual reality is just amazing, and we as a company are looking long-term at how we can provide content using this medium for various diagnosis,” Brickler said.
For independent and assisted living residents at La Posada, the value of virtual reality is more recreational than therapeutic, although it may be beneficial for someone who may not otherwise get out of his or her apartment or participate in group activities.
Minichino hopes virtual reality can have a therapeutic effect for memory care residents experiencing everything from a mild cognitive decline to full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.
Music is the last part of the brain that people lose, so hearing a song they haven’t heard in 20 years may stir up old memories, Minichino said. That, in turn, may allow them to have meaningful conversations with loved ones, said.
“Those reminiscing thoughts are really powerful,” he said. “Adding the visual component is going to make it even better.”