Bringing joy through virtual reality

John Miller has always wanted to go to Brazil. He’s been fascinated by its geographical attributes, but he could never afford to visit the South American nation.

Recently, the 62-year-old was able to experience Brazil’s mountains, forests, cities and coastal line and see the towering statue of Christ the Redeemer — virtually, from the comfort of his room at the Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre. 

“The thing I like about virtual reality is that, for a brief time, you forget about your age, health and where you are living. You can experience the things or places you have already been or never had the time or money for.”

John, who has multiple sclerosis and has been in a wheelchair for the last seven years, is among a growing number of residents who are accessing the virtual reality (VR) technology as part of a pilot project carried out by the social work and recreation therapy teams at the Edmonton General.

Project lead Scott Stewart brought the technology to the site in August 2021 after he was able to secure funding from the Covenant Foundation to purchase the hardware, which included a tablet and two VR googles, and a subscription from the VR vendor Rendever. “As a social worker, one of my primary intentions is to make sure that people are connected to the social world.”

So far, Edmonton General residents have experienced more than 60 sessions with over 100 different simulations. Each simulation lasts five to 10 minutes, and a session includes two or more simulations. Experiences range from playing with kittens or puppies to driving through an African safari, biking across the Golden Gate Bridge and much more. There are also interactive games such as balloon popping and swimming with fish, which allow residents to not only watch but also participate.

“This new technology is special and amazing because we’re able to create diverse and different activities for our residents. Just seeing the smiles on their faces, we know we are creating positive experiences. They love it, and they’re lining up for it,” says Joyce Chow, a recreation therapy assistant.

Scott says the simulations are selected based on the individual. “Some prefer motocross and car races; others prefer calming experiences like travelling down the canals of Venice or going to the Louvre in Paris or taking a tour of Buckingham Palace. Some may want to see where they grew up and how their family farm has been transformed, and we’ve been able to do that with Google Maps.”

John has been able to revisit his parents’ home in New Liskeard, northeastern Ontario, where he grew up with four brothers and three sisters before moving to the Arctic for work. “I went to where I lived as a little kid and also visited the home of my first girlfriend, who was my next-door neighbour.”

Two residents, Alvin Babcock and Tony Borrelli, have experienced about a dozen sessions each.

“It’s amazing; it’s wonderful,” says Alvin, whose favourite simulation is playing with puppies.

Tony says he loves skydiving. “I like flying in the sky. It feels like freedom!”

There are plans to expand the program. All the recreation therapists have been trained to operate the headsets, and the team has created a schedule to allow more residents to reap the benefits of this technology.

“We’re hoping to purchase more goggles and another tablet so it can be used throughout the Edmonton General,” says Scott. “Having more headsets means we can use it for more than just two people at a time and be able to run this for groups of four. Spouses can visit the Louvre Museum in Paris together — it enhances socialization.”

For John, the technology has helped satisfy his wanderlust. “I’d like to do more sightseeing, like visiting the Sistine Chapel in Rome. When you get those goggles on, you can go wherever you want, and it just lifts your spirit.”

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