Facilitating connections in aged care during lockdown with virtual reality

With restrictions on visits to aged care facilities to help stop the spread of coronavirus, how can older people stay connected with loved ones?


The coronavirus pandemic has had a massive impact on aged facilities across Australia.
 
At least 17 aged care facilities have already been hit with the virus, while all unannounced visits have been postponed indefinitely. The Department of Health has also issued a number of additional  restrictions focused on aged care staff protocols and visitors.
 
With most of the country in lockdown, where does this leave the residents, who ­– according to a University of Melbourne study – may already have been experiencing a sense of disengagement living in an aged care facility?
 
Human-computer interaction experts from the university have studied the use of technology in the aged care sector to come up with ways it can be used to provide social and emotional enrichment for residents, particularly during the coronavirus lockdown.
 
These technologies range from relatively simple solutions, such as videoconferencing to connect residents with family, to more sophisticated programs, such as immersive virtual reality (VR).
 
Ageing and technology expert and project co-lead Dr Jenny Waycott told newsGP technology-based programs can be used to alleviate boredom or to provide distraction.
 
‘Like other members of the community, aged care residents are at risk of social isolation during this pandemic,’ she said.
 
‘They may also be experiencing boredom because many of the group and volunteer-run activities will be on hold as visits from volunteers, as well as family and friends, have been curtailed.
 
‘For people living in aged care [facilities] who normally have regular visits from family and friends, they will be wondering why the visits have stopped. Using technology to communicate with family and friends will help to alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness … [as well as for] when people are feeling agitated and anxious.’
 
In addition to the recent telehealth expansion to provide healthcare, or even to connect with a long-time doctor, video calls to connect with loved ones can help nurture social connections.
 
Dr Waycott has also been looking at immersive VR as an option for aged care residents to stay engaged and entertained.
 
‘Over the past few years some aged care providers have started to include VR in their activities program. Immersive VR is particularly appealing for aged care because it is 3D and can make you feel as though you have really travelled to another place,’ she explained.
 
‘In this way, VR seems to bring the outside world into the confined physical world of an aged care home.’
 
Although not yet used in aged care to connect people with others, and, like other technologies in aged care, not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, Dr Waycott has found VR does provide an enjoyable activity and distraction from the day-to-day environment of the aged care home, and can promote conversation between residents.
 
‘This can be helpful when people are feeling bored or lonely or agitated,’ she said.
 
Some care staff interviewed for the study also highlighted how virtual travel in VR has helped unlock hidden memories of older people, such as one resident who went to Venice via a VR experience and then recalled it was the place of her honeymoon.
 
A key objective of the study is to ensure aged care residents are not cut off from the world and that care staff are provided with the tools, training and time to use technology effectively in the future.
 
But Dr Waycott is keen to note that, like most technologies being implemented in a new environment, there are some challenges.
 
‘People with sensory impairments (eg vision or hearing loss) might have difficulty communicating online and some people might find the technology confusing,’ she said.
 
‘Staff usually need to facilitate the use of technology in aged care, and this can be time-consuming and labour-intensive, as well as daunting for staff who do not feel comfortable using technology themselves.
 
‘The people I have spoken to have been highly committed to responding to the emotional needs and interests of the aged care residents they work with, and they have chosen to introduce technology because they can see it will meet the needs of individual residents.
 
‘But this is not a one-size-fits-all approach and to do it well requires staff time and commitment.’
 
Aged care workers can be supported to help connect residents with the community through trying the technology themselves, where possible.
 
And according to Dr Waycott, the best education is experience.
 
‘Care workers should be supported to build confidence in using the technology and in learning what is possible,’ she said.
 
‘There are volunteers who go into aged care homes to help with the social program, for example to provide music or other activities. These visits are on hold during the pandemic, so it would be great if they can be done remotely through videoconferencing, where possible.’

Original article can be found on RACGP website: https://www1.racgp.org.au/newsgp/clinical/facilitating-connections-in-aged-care-during-lockd

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