Ongoing virtual reality experiences can help reduce depression in aged care residents, a conference has heard.  

A University of Queensland study explored the feasibility of virtual reality as a non-pharmacological approach to improving residents’ moods and reducing depression, agitation and anxiety.

The research, which was funded by the RM Gibson Research Fund, involved 25 residents watching six virtual reality sessions over three weeks.

Rachel Brimelow

Residents could choose their VR experience from several options including going to the beach, visiting 1953 London, watching elephants or seeing Uluru.

University of Queensland PhD student Rachel Brimelow presented the findings at the Australian Association of Gerontology conference on Wednesday.  

She said they found a “significant” decrease in depression, no change in anxiety and mixed results on agitation.

“One of the main findings of this virtual reality trial is that virtual reality over the longer term managed to decrease depression scores,” Ms Brimelow told the conference.

The study also found residents’ improved moods remained for 10 minutes after the VR experience ended, she said.

“We didn’t observe any increase or decrease in anxiety scores. And this might be due to the self-report nature of the tool that we included, which managed to limit this to residents without significant cognitive impairment,” Ms Brimelow said.

However, the study identified an increase in agitation among residents using the Cohan Mansfield Agitation Inventory, but an analysis of behavioural report logs and as-needed medications during this period did not support an increase in agitated behaviours, she said.

“This might be an indicator that the Cohan Mansfield Agitation Inventory was not as reliable in reporting agitation.”

Ms Brimelow said they also observed increased activity from residents after they used the VR headsets.

“We did notice that there was some anecdotal evidence from staff and from aged care residents’ families that participated, that residents were more physically active after their virtual reality sessions,” she said.

She said the study findings highlighted the feasibility of non-pharmacological interventions to reduce depression.

“We did find that it was an engaging and stimulating group-based activity, and that this activity was feasible to be conducted within aged care, either with personal carers or special lifestyle coordinators or registered nurses.”

 “The use of virtual reality within aged care highlights the importance of engagement and social isolation in the prevalence of behavioural and psychological symptoms,” she said.

“The use of virtual reality to reduce these symptoms, such as apathy… highlights that nonpharmacological interventions can be used,” she said.

The AAG Conference takes place as a virtual event on 18 – 20 November.

Australian Ageing Agenda is a media partner of AAG.

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