Taking a walk on the virtual side

As the leaves were falling outside Ebenezer Minneapolis last fall, a new reality was taking hold inside.

Twenty- five residents from across the senior living community’s campus sat down in a 1950s-style hair salon, strapped on virtual reality headsets and zoomed straight into the future.

The residents — who ranged from independent seniors to those living in Ebenezer’s skilled nursing center — were tapped to participate in a study co-sponsored by the provider and a virtual reality start-up company. The idea was to help the company, Visual, determine if its wellness platform could help reduce anxiety among seniors.

Mostly though, said Lifelong Learning Program Coordinator Chris- tine Mangold, residents just had a blast with experiences that ranged from a walk through the woods, to a rock concert and an immersive aquarium trip, especially those who don’t, or can’t, get out often.

“People became very uninhibited,” Mangold said. “They were using their hands at the aquarium, looking at and pointing out the fish. They certainly felt a freedom to act out and be involved.”

After eight sessions of high-tech make-believe, each participant was invited to provide feedback on the program.

It created such buzz — 96% of residents said they “felt happier” afterward — that Ebenezer plans to launch virtual reality clubs.