Virtual-reality healthcare: Care homes trial VR walking for residents

Care-home residents enjoy a virtual stroll (Oxfordshire County Council)
Care-home residents enjoy a virtual stroll (Oxfordshire County Council)

As anybody who has sampled the best VR games will know, virtual reality offers unbeatable immersion. And now residents of a pair of care homes in Oxfordshire are finding this out for themselves, thanks to a trial aimed at boosting the health and wellbeing of those with limited mobility.

Residents of Fairfield Residential Home and Mon Choisy care home walk up to three kilometres a session, at a virtual location of their choice in the UK or overseas, without actually needing to leave their chairs.

The VR headsets are connected to specialist seated treadmills, though an option of a safety-enhanced standing treadmill is also available for those up to it. Given the risks of VR motion sickness even when seated, however, this certainly wouldn’t be for everyone.

Care workers can accompany residents on the virtual hikes via a tablet, allowing them to talk about the sights as they go.

The trial has been deemed a success, enabling residents previously limited to tens of steps per day to ‘walk’ for up to 40 minutes at a time.

“Watching our residents using the VR for the first time was fantastic,” said Maddie Gillies, from Fairfield Residential Home. “Once they were used to the technology, they really relaxed into it and spent some considerable time walking around their virtual worlds.

“It was the perfect way to help residents move more freely, meeting other people and sparking conversations about places they had visited in their life.”

The 17-month trial came about thanks to a £350,000 grant from Innovate UK, and the technological solution was provided by Oxford’s ROVR Systems.

“We have seen our VR technologies expand the horizons of people whose worlds have shrunk, providing safe opportunities for social connections, learning, and unwitting exercise,” said ROVR’s CEO Charles King. “These wonderful experiences enhance their lives and further build caring relationships with the fantastic staff.”

The results of the trial had been described by one staff member as “miraculous”, he claimed.

“We have witnessed glimpses of the real person, where advanced dementia otherwise hides these interesting people, and seen new connections and insights for caring staff with people who usually don’t engage in activities.”

Other care homes have tested virtual reality with residents before, in order to provide mental stimulation and entertainment.

Six years ago, The Express visited a care home in East Sussex that was providing residents with scuba-diving VR experiences. “I love it, love it,” 87-year-old resident Helen Marshall told the paper at the time.