Twenty-five percent of Americans are predicted to be 65 or older by 2030 (U.S. Census) and this demographic will outnumber those 18 and younger by 2035. Physical, emotional and cognitive changes associated with normal aging place an enormous emotional and financial burden on the senior, their family and the healthcare system. Studies show that as many as 13% of home care recipients experience an adverse event, may of which are preventable.
These burdens can be mitigated, and preventable circumstances and accidents can be avoided with high-quality education and training for seniors and their paid and unpaid caregivers. For example, training on how to make the home safe from falls, how diet and exercise reduce the risk of diabetes, how mood swings and depression can be mitigated, or how memory loss affects daily functioning, and how to mitigate these problems are critical.
High-quality education facilitates successful aging in place (preferred by 90% of seniors) by reducing preventable risks and providing tools for addressing these risks through education. High-quality education also increases satisfaction and reduces stress in seniors and their caregivers. Dissatisfaction and stress in seniors and their caregivers has been shown to reduce the likelihood of successful aging in place and the senior’s survival rate.
Unfortunately, high-quality education and training is rare, and in too many cases, no or ineffective training is provided. To build effective educational tools for seniors and their caregivers, one must leverage research on the cognitive neuroscience of learning. One fact that is clear is that experiential learning is most effective, and is more effective than learning by reading text or watching videos. Experiential learning engages multiple learning and memory systems in the brain (e.g., sensory, behavioral, emotional and cognitive) in synchrony leading the multiple, highly contextualized, interconnected memory traces. Text and video predominantly engage the cognitive system leading to cognitive memory traces only. Unfortunately, experiential learning is time-intensive, cost-intensive, and is not scalable.
These issues are addressed with virtual reality (VR). VR trains through experience, but is time-effective, cost-effective and scalable. Virtual reality (VR) provides the senior and their caregiver with a first-person immersive experience. When combined with interactive storytelling the lines between real and virtual immersive experience blur to the point that the learner has a sense of “presence”. They feel like they have “landed” somewhere else.
Healthcare education and training in general, and senior/caregiver training in particular, is ripe for the application of modern technologies such as VR. Unlike text-based training content that engages only the cognitive learning system, VR broadly engages multiple learning systems in the brain in synchrony by transporting a learner into a novel experience. For example, a caregiver can be instantly transported into the body of a senior and can experience the disorientation and frustration associated with poor memory functioning.
Similarly, a caregiver can be transported into the home of a senior and can shadow a skill nurse interacting with a depressed patient while the nurse is providing useful tips and demonstrating useful tricks for improving their mood. Finally, a caregiver can be transported into the home of a senior that was just “fall proofed”. The senior can provide a tour of their home highlighting the changes and safety features highlighted. These are only a few examples, of numerous potential applications.
No matter where older adults age, whether at home or in a community, training and safety considerations will remain paramount. The important thing to keep in mind here is that we have identified a path forward. VR technology can increase the likelihood of successful aging in place by providing cost effective, scalable training solutions that work — one experience at a time.