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North Hills Monthly

Virtual Reality at St. Barnabas Adding to Residents’ Joy

Feb 27, 2019 12:59PM ● By Vanessa Orr

St. Barnabus residents Lois and Joan experiencing virtual reality. Photo by Vanessa Orr

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down at the conference table with the three ladies wearing virtual reality (VR) headsets at St. Barnabas. I’d heard about the glasses, but only knew how they worked in theory; much less how they could be applied to helping Memory Care patients as part of the St. Barnabas Brain Health Program which was created in conjunction with Dr. Joseph Maroon.

At first, there was just a little laughter and big smiles as what the women were seeing on-screen captured their attention; later, they began to clap after watching a musical performance. But the most touching moment came when all three women began to sing “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” entranced by the woman singing on-screen and taking an active role as part of the audience.

Their joy was contagious even after the glasses were removed. Asked what she saw while watching, Joan—all smiles—said “Everything!” 

“That was nice,” agreed Lois, still beaming.

Since this past September when they were introduced, the virtual reality headsets have shown great promise in accomplishing the Memory Care Department’s main goals of lessening anxiety and increasing joy in the residents who live at the Arbors at St. Barnabas. Approximately three times a week, residents are able to use virtual reality to travel to faraway places, play with puppies on a farm, listen to concerts and watch dance performances, and even learn about the world around them.

“Our CEO and president William Day is a visionary, and he’s always looking at where we need to grow next,” explained Manager of Memory Care Services Marjorie Hobaugh, M.Ed., PCH-A, of the use of the new technology. “While the current generation is used to it, our folks are absolutely amazed by it. So we thought it might be a good approach to try to use technology to provide joy.”

One of the biggest features of Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia is fear, and the staff at St. Barnabas work to reduce that feeling in any way that they can, including through the use of art and music therapy and pet therapy. Virtual reality is just one more tool that they can use to provide residents with a positive experience.

While some residents believe that they’re watching a movie, others feel that they are actually part of the performance. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that the VR headset immerses the watcher in the action—instead of just watching a pianist play, the viewer can turn his or head to see audience members sitting beside them. Watching puppies run toward them can seem so real that one woman began shooing at the dogs to get down; other viewers may start chatting with the people that they’re seeing while walking in Paris.

To enhance the experience, St. Barnabas staff sometimes use essential oils to provide the smells of what viewers are seeing on screen, such as lavender when the screen shows someone walking through a field.

St. Barnabas Memory Care staff spent three months evaluating the product, which is provided by MyndVR. They also monitored residents when they began to use it, taking vitals before and after use to see if there was any change and discussing how it made them feel. 

“We saw no adverse medical effects, but their moods did change,” said Hobaugh. “Overall, it appeared to make them happier.”

When asked how they were feeling after a session, which generally lasts about 20 minutes, nearly 100 percent of VR users said that they were happy, with some even able to recount what they’d seen the next day.

Anna Foust, MS, CDCP, facilitates the sessions and helps residents choose from five different categories that include travel, pets, nature, music and art, and learning. Most videos run from three to five minutes, and travel tends to be a favorite. 

“For some of our residents, mobility is a big issue, and VR allows them to go somewhere new, or return to somewhere that they haven’t visited in years,” said Foust. “They’re not just seeing Paris on a flat screen; because the view rotates 360 degrees, it’s like actually being there.” 

She added that it sometimes comes as a surprise to see what different residents want to watch. “It’s not always what I expect,” she laughed. “A lot of them really love the learning category that deals a lot with science and space. They really love the rocket launch video.”

In addition to providing entertainment, VR serves an even more important purpose, according to Hobaugh. 

“Virtual reality is a benefit because instead of focusing on deficits, like not being able to get in a car and travel to New York, our residents are able to enjoy Times Square in a safe way,” she explained. “They are still in a building that is comfortable and familiar, and where there’s someone here for them if they get anxious, but we’re bringing the world to them.” 

St. Barnabas is the first provider in Pennsylvania to use VR technology in this way, and plans to expand its use to the therapy and home care departments. If Lois and Joan are any sign, there’s going to be a lot more joy in residents’ future.