Elders find virtue in virtual reality

Local | Carine Chow 9 Sep 2021

Simultaneous motor-cognitive training with virtual reality help is effective to enhance the functions of the elderly who are frail, a study by the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong has shown.

Unlike dementia, the elderly who suffer from cognitive frailty can still live independently, despite being physically weak with mild cognitive impairment. Cognitive frailty is also reversible if treated in the early stages.

Led by Rick Kwan Yiu-cho, assistant professor of the school of nursing, researchers spent nearly a year developing the prototype of the virtual reality system with the help of HK$2.92 million funding from the Innovation and Technology Fund for Better Living last year.

The team recruited 17 seniors from community centers under Pok Oi Hospital between September and November and those taking part were split into virtual reality and control groups.

All were aged 60 years or above and had no experience in playing virtual reality games. They had to score between 20 and 25 in the Montreal Cognitive Assessment - a tool for detecting mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease.

During their eight-week treatment cycle, consisting of two 30-minute sessions each week, the elderly in the virtual reality group were asked to complete daily tasks such as grocery shopping or finding bus stops in the virtual reality system while cycling with an under-desk ergometer. The control group used tablets instead of virtual reality.

Results showed that seniors in the VR group showed a more significant improvement in function, including calculation, memory, reaction and attention, than their controlled counterparts.

Kwan said the vast majority did not feel symptoms of VR sickness, such as dizziness, after the treatment, thanks to the team's refinement of the VR design.

"The design allows the elderly to walk on our designated path so they do not have to constantly control the movements themselves. Though they have to choose the direction they want to turn, whether to the left or to the right," he said.

Kwan also said objects are placed at a greater distance in the game so the elderly players do not have to tilt their heads up high which also helps reduce the VR sickness.

He said the VR system his team had created simulates actual road conditions in Hong Kong so the elderly players can use the skills they have learned in the game in their daily lives.

A 68-year-old retired elderly woman, Wu, who has tried the system said both her memory and mood improved after the treatment.

"In the past, I always went down to the street wanting to buy something but then I will have forgotten what I wanted to get," she said, adding that she had become less willing to go out after her husband died last year.

"But now I am more willing to go out and meet my friends," she said.

So far, about 300 elderly in six of Pok Oi Hospital's elderly centers have tried the system.

The research team aims at applying the VR system to a total of 648 elderly by the end of next year. They also hope to develop a multiplayer mode that will include more tasks such as taking care of grandchildren.

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