The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the use of technology in many aspects of our lives. One of the biggest areas technology has helped is in combatting social isolation that has happened as a result of physical distancing. People who couldn’t visit their friends and families quickly adapted to using video chat apps to stay connected. This technology has been used at Revera’s retirement residences and long term care homes to keep families in touch, and some homes are also using virtual reality (VR) as a way to engage residents and keep them connected to the outside world.
Revera’s Reports on Ageism demonstrate that older Canadians are not afraid of technology. The Revera Report on Innovation and the Aging Experience highlights that Canadian seniors believe that innovation will help solve many of their worries about aging, including concerns about their health and losing their independence. Also, the Revera Report on Tech Savvy Seniors shows that the top two reasons older adults use technology is to stay socially engaged and informed about current events.
“We’ve had to work incredibly hard to combat social isolation,” says Renzy Azcueta, Recreation, Volunteer, and Spiritual Care Manager at Revera’s Maples Long Term Care Home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “We organize small group programs and have increased our one-to-one visits, and to alleviate some of their loneliness, we have maintained meaningful connections with families through weekly virtual calls.
Older adults are at an increased risk of feeling socially isolated or lonely, and the physical distancing rules that were put in place to protect vulnerable populations, like seniors, have been a challenge for recreation teams in long term care homes and retirement residences. “The biggest impact has been that the programs that our residents thoroughly enjoy, such as large group special events, entertainment, spiritual care services, and external group outings, have had to change to keep everyone safe,” says Renzy.
This is where virtual reality has played a significant role in helping residents overcome feelings of isolation and loneliness. Maples is using VR to help reduce responsive behaviours through therapeutic and interactive videos. With a VR headset, residents have been able to enjoy virtual excursions to Antarctica to see penguins and also go on an African safari adventure.
“I enjoyed watching the dolphins swim. It was very quiet, peaceful, and colourful,” says Edward Muzyczka, a resident at Maples. Mr. Muzyczka has been a resident at Maples for just over five years and says he’s weathering the pandemic as well as he can. “I feel good but I’m always watching the news and staying up to date. I wish they could find a vaccine soon.”
Mr. Muzyczka says he’s most looking forward to being able to have his weekly lunches with his sister at a local restaurant when the pandemic is finally declared over. In the meantime, VR has been a great tool to help combat social isolation. “VR serves as a gateway to the world that we live in without leaving the comforts of our care homes,” says Renzy. “Ultimately, it increases resident engagement and has helped to calm residents during agitative moments by giving them an outlet depending on their specific mood.”
This could mean going on a virtual tropical beach getaway to remove themselves from stressful moments or enjoying soothing music which transports them to a more peaceful state of mind. “There is so much more work to be done to combat social isolation in our resident population,” says Renzy. “I believe with the aid of innovative programs such as VR, this would not only assist us but also enhance the care and services that we can provide for our residents.”
“The most rewarding part of my job has always been creating lasting moments with our Maples residents,” he says. “Having the opportunity to bring genuine joy to our residents, regardless of how short or long those moments are, is what truly inspires me to come to work every day.”
As technology continues to improve, the possibilities are endless to support older adults and improve the aging experience. For now, with technology like VR, Revera’s residents at Maples Long Term Care Home can experience the wonders of the world right from Winnipeg. “It was great! It was like bringing the zoo here to the Maples,” says Mr. Muzyczka.