Embracing virtual reality

In her final weeks, Holly Jordan found joy as she travelled and tried new experiences, all from the comfort of her bed at Dulcina Hospice.

Her virtual adventures were made possible by a virtual reality headset at the Covenant Care site. 

“She’d never been on a roller-coaster,” says Holly’s daughter, Melissa Bernon. “She got a bit nervous at one point and held onto the bed rails.” 

Holly’s delight was heart-warming for Melissa and the staff who were in the room while Holly rode the coaster. And those experiences have become special keepsakes for Melissa, who captured her mother’s virtual reality experiences with videos so she could watch them again and again. They’re especially meaningful since Holly, 63, died of lung cancer in December 2020.

A growing number of hospices are using virtual reality headsets as a complementary therapy for palliative patients. The experiences help patients feel more active and provide good distractions, especially for those who feel isolated from family and friends. Research has also shown that virtual reality therapy relieves depression and decreases physical pain. 

Holly holds onto the bed rails during a virtual roller-coaster ride.

“My mother never got to travel outside of Canada,” says Melissa, who moved Holly from Nova Scotia to Calgary to take care of her. “The virtual reality glasses were really special in allowing her to see where I am going to get married.”

Melissa, who’d seen COVID-19 delay her plans to marry in Cuba in May 2020, was happy her mom got to virtually visit the island where she still hopes to exchange vows with her fiancé.

Holly was in awe of the white sand beach and the crystal blue waters as she stood within the virtual scene where her daughter plans to wed. 

“She asked if it was real,” says Melissa. “‘Is the water really this blue?’ She still believed she was going to get there.”

Melissa is grateful for the experiences Holly had with the headset. “I’ll still feel like she’s there when we do get married,” says Melissa. “It means a lot that she knew where it would all happen.”

For some residents, the virtual reality headset hasn’t taken them to new places but has allowed them to revisit meaningful places from their past.

For a resident who’d been an explorer and mountain climber, the headset took him to various mountains he was familiar with, including a road through Kananaskis. He was able to see hills and rivers and look up at the mountains.

“He named all of the mountain peaks as he saw them and told stories of how he climbed to the top of various peaks,” says Lisa Andrews, a social worker at Dulcina Hospice.

Through virtual reality, the resident was also able to visit the summit of Everest and go on an African Safari. But the highlight was watching one of his favourite climbers do a solo climb of El Capitan, without equipment, at Yosemite National Park.

For a resident who loved baseball, the virtual reality headset immersed him in a major-league baseball game, at field level.

“His family was in the room along with him, and they all enjoyed seeing him laugh and be excited to try the glasses,” says Theresa Bellows, co-ordinator of the volunteer program at Dulcina Hospice.

It’s not just the residents who benefit from the virtual reality experiences. Their families and the staff in their presence also benefit from the joy the experiences bring and the memories they create.

“Some people come to us with goals,” says Theresa. “It might be to go back to where they’re from, like a resident we had from Moldova, or it could be attending one more baseball game.” 

For staff, who try their hardest to fulfill end-of-life goals, regardless of what they are, virtual reality headsets have proven to be a great tool. 

Dulcina Hospice staff are careful to follow COVID-19 guidelines when using the virtual reality headsets, which were generously donated by Best Buy in Deerfoot Meadows in Calgary.

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