How virtual reality is transporting seniors to faraway worlds

In a recreation room at Donald Berman Maimonides Geriatric Centre, Tobie Bruner Schwartz (right) enjoys a virtual-reality session under the supervision of Recreation Therapists Lucy Bridgeman (left) and Catherine Drew.
In a recreation room at Donald Berman Maimonides Geriatric Centre, Tobie Bruner Schwartz (right) enjoys a virtual-reality session under the supervision of Recreation Therapists Lucy Bridgeman (left) and Catherine Drew.

The weather outside is cold and grey, but Tobie Bruner Schwartz doesn’t notice. She’s swimming in sparkling blue waters with a pod of dolphins, watching sunlight filter through the shimmering surface of the sea.

“Oh my, it’s gorgeous!” she exclaims. “Look at the colours!”

Tobie Bruner Schwartz (left) and Gloria Lallouz share a laugh after using their virtual-reality goggles.
Tobie Bruner Schwartz (left) and Gloria Lallouz share a laugh after using their virtual-reality goggles.

The experience isn’t real, but her sensation of wonder is. Seated in a recreation room at Donald Berman Maimonides Geriatric Centre, Ms. Schwartz is wearing virtual-reality goggles that have transported her to a distant, glittering world.

Since the summer of 2023, Maimonides has been using technology to open up new horizons for seniors like Ms. Schwartz. Without leaving their residence, these virtual voyagers are soaring skyward in hot-air balloons, frolicking with guide-dog puppies, attending a philharmonic performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and visiting their childhood homes.

The journeys are supervised by the long-term care centre’s Recreation team, whose members oversee and operate the virtual-reality sessions from a tablet.

“It allows us to bring the outside world in,” says Recreation Therapist Lucy Bridgeman. “You can go anywhere, anytime, from the comfort of your home.”

“It’s like having the world in the palm of your hand.”

Recreation Therapist Lucy Bridgeman

Gloria Lallouz, a resident at Maimonides who joined Ms. Schwartz for the dolphin swim, recently used the goggles for a virtual visit to a synagogue with elaborate stained-glass windows. “I had the feeling of actually being there,” Ms. Lallouz says. “I was being taken to a place that I would not get to visit or experience. That’s the beauty of it.”

Recreation Therapist Lucy Bridgeman holds a tablet displaying the dolphin swim that residents can experience through virtual reality.
Recreation Therapist Lucy Bridgeman holds a tablet displaying the dolphin swim that residents can experience through virtual reality.

Proponents say the technology can help overcome social isolation and provide stimulation, particularly among those experiencing cognitive decline. There are physical benefits as well: When residents reach out to pat virtual puppies, for example, they stretch, bend and use their arms.

Then there’s the emotional component. Using the digital platform, Recreation team members have located residents’ childhood homes and taken them on a current-day virtual tour of their cities or neighbourhoods. One woman, a Holocaust survivor, revisited a town in her native Poland.

Recreation Therapist Catherine Drew helped another woman track down her childhood home in the Montreal borough of Outremont. Wearing the goggles, the woman viewed the outside of the home today and began to reminisce about her family, her childhood activities and the tree that grew outside her window.

“She was beyond joyous,” Ms. Drew recalls.

“For some residents, memories are their most prized possessions.”

Recreation Therapist Catherine Drew

CIUSSS West-Central Montreal partnered with Boston-based Rendever to provide the virtual-reality technology—another example of how our CIUSSS is using technology to improve the care of patients and residents, no matter what their age or physical abilities. The virtual-reality programming is being extended in February to Donald Berman Jewish Eldercare.

“This program challenges the misconception that older adults can’t use technology or don’t benefit from technology,” says Leah Berger, Assistant to the Director of the Support Program for the Autonomy of Seniors (SAPA) in long-term care.

Watch how virtual-reality technology is being used at Donald Berman Maimonides Geriatric Centre:

Residents can use the goggles under supervision either alone or in groups, from anywhere in their centres—even in bed. And their virtual offerings will expand this year: Relatives will be able to upload videos to enable loved ones in long-term care to virtually attend family trips or celebrations. Users will also be able to participate in group activities such as trivia games with people in other residences who use the technology.

“Through virtual reality, residents can continue to explore their interests and be active community members, irrespective of physical or geographic boundaries,” Ms. Berger says.  “This program provides the mechanism for that connection.”

For Ms. Schwartz, that connection inspired a sense of both relaxation and awe. “I felt immersed, like I was in a different world,” she said after her session. “It was like going on a trip, where you can forget all your troubles. It was very calm and peaceful.” Not a bad getaway for a wintry January afternoon.

* Funding for the virtual-reality technology at Maimonides was provided by the Donald Berman Maimonides Foundation. Funding at Jewish Eldercare was provided by the Donald Berman Jewish Eldercare Foundation.