In my experience as a director of recreation, virtual reality journeys are therapeutic, person-centered and can be adapted to the specific needs of residents. Residents are truly amazed where virtual reality can take them.

Recently we began using VIRTU-WELL to provide this to our residents. This is the first time we’ve used a therapeutic program like this to deliver high-quality virtual reality experiences. Our residents describe the sensation with superlatives such as “fantastic,” “beautiful,” “gorgeous” and “striking” after taking their virtual journeys.

The experience is so lifelike that residents can experience the outdoors. They tour exotic places such as Italy and Hawaii, get behind the wheel and drive a race car, or even sing in a choir. When a resident drives a sports car at the Indy 500 and makes a sharp turn, you can observe him holding tightly to his wheelchair, as if he was there. The physical stimulation is so vivid, you can see a resident picking her arms up trying to catch a fly ball in the World Series.

VIRTU-WELL is part of Central Island Healthcare’s mission to provide innovative ways to care for our residents. This program was introduced to us by the company founder Harrison Nogin.

My administrator, Arthur Boden, and I thought there would be benefits. But as he said, “The challenge was how to add this platform to our already active therapeutic recreation program.”

Nogin convinced us that VIRTU-WELL software would be suitable for our residents. He was positive that he could deliver an exciting program that our residents can embrace in a way never done before.

We began with approximately 15 residents of various physical and cognitive abilities asked if they wanted to participate in a virtual reality program. Under my supervision, resident participants were asked to pick a topic from a menu of options. The topics ranged from travel, musicals, sports, animals and nature.

The virtual reality experience ranges from 5 – 10 minutes and are fully immersive. The participant can look in any direction and feel like they are transported to a new location or experience. Some experiences have aromatherapy added to their journeys, making it multi-sensory. Residents imagine baking in the kitchen, smelling the aroma of a freshly baked apple pie, running in an open grassy field while whiffing the scent of fresh cut grass or visiting India and smelling spices such as cumin.

VIRTU-WELL serves a dual purpose. While one user is immersed in the experience, other residents in the room can experience the same journey on a mirrored version on a TV screen. What starts out as an individual experience ultimately results in a group activity where everyone in the room can view what is going on, seeing what the resident sees, and most likely feeling the same sensations of the virtual experience.

Facility requirements are not major. All that is needed is a large TV with a USB port. VIRTU-WELL supplies a custom-built computer, HTC Vive Pro Headset with custom face guards that relieve pressure and increase the field of view. They provide a boom system with retractable weight management cords that reduces the weight of the headset and lessens the stress on the user’s neck. The headset is sanitized between each user.

The therapeutic benefits of virtual reality can be enjoyed by most individual including the memory impaired, the physically and cognitively impaired and some who are visually impaired. Residents that may not be able to communicate their interests can still benefit from this process. By working with staff and family members VIRTU-WELL reality is able to find experiences that are meaningful and powerful to them.

We’ve found this is a program designed to fill a need in populations who may not be able to participate in activities and feel as though they cannot enjoy the things they once did. Even those that may not be able to move their necks, can be rotated in their chairs so they can fully experience the journey. The equipment can be adapted to most situations, including residents in bed and people dependent on ventilators. Virtual reality tours may be beneficial in reducing pain, decreasing depression, combating boredom, while providing entertainment and lessening stress.

Residents must be carefully monitored for negative reactions such as dizziness, nausea or agitation. In those cases, the individual’s journey immediately stops.

For us, it only took one positive session at Central Island to see the benefits for our residents. Since then, we have booked VIRTU-WELL on a monthly basis.

Irene Carr is the Director of Recreation at Central Island Healthcare in New York.