Using digital mapping and other technology to virtually visit a place has helped aged care residents recount stories from their past and interact socially, a University of Melbourne study shows.

The research, published in the Australasian Journal on Ageing this month, aimed to explore the potential benefits and risks of virtual visits using digital maps, mobile tablets and virtual reality.

It involved reminiscence sessions with seven aged care residents using digital mapping application Google Maps Street View to virtually visit places of significance through a VR headset or iPad.

Lead researcher Dr Sarah Webber said the experience of visiting these places virtually was “quite emotionally compelling” for some residents.

“They benefited from being able to see these places and talk about them, retell and recount stories, and they found it extremely moving,” Dr Webber told Australian Ageing Agenda.

“That wasn’t the case for all of our participants, but certainly for a couple of them who had those strong place-based memories or had a kind of an identity associated with a specific place that they couldn’t travel to,” said Dr Webber, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne.

Dr Sarah Webber

Virtual visits can help residents to reminiscence in richer ways, she said.

“One of the great things about reminiscence is that it provides social opportunities for people to talk about things they know about to recount stories from their past in a detailed way and perhaps access memories that don’t often come to the fore.”

That allows people to talk their families as well as their peers or others in the aged care home, Dr Webber said.

However, there is a risk of evoking bad memories, she said.

The study also found problems related to using the VR headset because the apps and platform didn’t allow a facilitator to set things up and guide someone through their experience or see what they were seeing, Dr Webber said.

“It was rather difficult for us to facilitate experiences and to be confident that we were helping people to navigate as they would want to. It was hard sometimes for us to understand what they were pointing out in their environment in contrast to the iPad, which is much easier for two people together, passed back and forth between them and look at the same time,” she said.

Dr Webber said technology manufacturers had a role in examining how these VR headset technologies might be better designed for facilitated use.

“That that includes the ability to have oversight, to make sure that you’re aware of what someone’s looking at, as well as being able to help them navigate and work out how best to guide them,” she said.

“For aged care facilities that are looking to implement something like this, they need to go through a trialling or pilot process to work out what’s going to be involved, and what skills and time requirements are going to be required by staff to facilitate that.”

Access the study here.

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