Using virtual reality to help the elderly

One summer during high school, I was a food server at an assisted living facility. I got to see what it was like for elderly people living in nursing homes and nursing-homesque environments. While the company seemed to be trying to make these residents comfortable, it was a nightmare at times.

When you get old, you’re oftentimes treated like an infant. Nurses take care of you and activities are decided for you. If you’re in a wheelchair, others even get to decide where you are placed in a room. But as an elderly person, you don’t stop being an adult. Several of the men there kept telling jokes, and women chatted together.

Some days, I would come home crying after hearing stories from the residents. One woman said she knew her family was just waiting for her to die, so they could get their inheritance. They never visited.

Chris Milk, a leader in virtual reality, has often referred to the technology as an “empathy machine.” Empathy is what these forgotten members of society need.

A recent article by Buffalo Business First highlighted violations made by nursing homes and different recurring problems that go unsolved.

A plan for a virtual reality tour

I would love to use the virtual reality cameras to create a walking tour of a nursing home. The whole thing would be a walkthrough with interviews from the residents about what their everyday life is like. We could see the food they eat, where they sleep, and the activities planned for them.

To get this project done, I would have to coordinate with a nursing home to get access. This would probably be difficult because these are private companies that would not want bad publicity. Not all aspects of nursing home life are negative so both sides would be shown: the friendliness of the staff alongside lack of diverse activity options.

A lot of equipment would be required, but experience would be the most important component. I would try to partner up with Milk’s virtual reality company so their specialists could help with the filming and logistics. I would also need them to stitch the film so it could be viewed on platforms like the VRSE iPhone application.

The project would show people what it’s actually like to live in a nursing home. Almost everyone knows someone in a nursing home, whether is a friend of the family or their own relative. It will open their eyes and encourage people to engage the elderly. It might also help stop reoccuring infractions like the ones mentioned in the Buffalo Business First news story.

This would not be the most riveting piece of video. There wouldn’t be sweeping views of the New York skyline. But it would inform the public and make a difference.