Sushant Abrol, PT, MS, DPT, Director of Rehabilitation, Upper East Side Nursing and Rehabilitation

Virtual reality, a technological wonder rarely associated with use by the Silent or Baby Boomer generation. Despite being the fastest growing demographic in our country right now, the elderly are often the most overlooked when it comes to new technology being introduced to the market, which is a miscalculation.

Skilled nursing facilities across the country have been finding a use for VR in the rehabilitation of patients, as well as for experiential purposes; at a number of our Cassena Care facilities, virtual reality is being utilized for both purposes. The use of VR can help improve the lives of seniors with mobility problems who require physical rehabilitation and for those residents who are unable to leave the facility.

The reality is, exercise is not the most exciting part of most people’s days. Stretching and working out can be challenging, despite the importance to patients’ physical health. Virtual reality is now being used to enhance the physical therapy experience; routines are more exciting, and residents actually look forward to participating in their VR physical therapy sessions.

Our technology, made by Jintronix, enables us to scan each resident’s body and calculate and customize routines for each individual. The VR technology also helps track the individual’s responses to the on-screen visual cues — think Wii — to ensure that they are maximizing the benefits of their therapy. This technology becomes integrated in the resident’s physical therapy routine, allowing the routines to increase in intensity and difficulty as the resident’s progress.

Some of the therapy games that are utilized include skiing, which helps improve an individual’s ability to shift their weight from side-to-side, and apple catching, which helps practice balance.

The technology also produces outcome measures in the form of graphs and numbers, which we share with the residents so they can track their progress. Seeing these outcome measures motivates them to participate in the rehab program.

We have made experiential VR an important part of life at our skilled nursing facility. Many residents come to stay with us for extended periods of time, and for some of them, this is their last home. Many have severe physical limitations, making travel and other leisurely activities nearly impossible. Virtual Reality is changing that.

Within our Manhattan facility, Upper East Side Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, we use MyndVR to give residents the opportunity to explore parts of the world or relive experiences from their past. Some of these excursions include going to the beach, visiting an art gallery, attending a concert or even traveling to Africa to walk with elephants.

This technology has improved socialization among residents and has helped reduce isolation within the facility. These virtual experiences give residents something to talk about while in group settings.

The elderly, despite public perception that they’re less capable of learning new technologies, are usually open and receptive to learning new technologies, especially virtual reality. They enjoy the process of learning how to use VR and enjoy it even more once they’ve mastered it. While the education process is slightly longer with this demographic, the reward is much higher for them because it gives them a sense of accomplishment. Seniors love mastering something that most believe are beyond their capabilities.

People are starting to recognize the benefits of virtual reality for the elderly population, and new companies are creating technology to enhance the lives of residents in long-term care facilities. Virtual reality gives them immense freedom, from being able to relive the good old days, to traveling the world without ever leaving the safety and security of their facility.

This is a generation that enjoys new experiences, and as the technology continues to evolve, it’s something that long-term care facilities across the country should continue to integrate into their homes for patient care and treatment, as well as entertainment.

Sushant Abrol, PT, MS, DPT, is the Director of Rehabilitation at Upper East Side Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in New York. He is an active New York Physical Therapy Association delegate.

Jennifer Wenk is the Vice President of Social Work, Admissions and Business Development for Cassena Care, a long-term care conglomerate that operates 18 skilled nursing facilities in the New York region with over 4,700 beds. She directs the overall admissions and discharge planning processes for all locations.