Remote Presence in Nature through Virtual Reality: A Pilot Study on the Mental Well-Being of Older Adults
By 2030, the number of people above the age of 65 is projected to outnumber those under the age of 18 for the first time in United States history. With a growing older population, it is predicted that the amount of people moving into nursing homes and care facilities will also increase. However, a pressing problem is the high prevalence of depression and anxiety among elderly people residing in institutionalized living arrangements. With drugs and antidepressants less effective at treating patients with both dementia and depression, there is a need for more non-pharmacological interventions geared toward improving older adults’ mental well-being. In response, the potential therapeutic effect of exploring virtual nature through EcoRift—which provides dynamic and realistic 360-degree audio and visual environments—on older adults’ mental well-being was examined in this study. Ten individuals (3 men and 7 women) aged 50 and above were recruited and each participant experienced the virtual nature sojourns for 15 minutes once a week, for a total of three weeks. Pre- and post- virtual reality (VR) survey questionnaires were implemented to gauge the participants’ emotional response, including overall well-being and level of relaxation. Physiological measures such as heart rate and blood pressure were also taken before and after the VR experience. Findings show that immersion in nature through virtual reality improves older adults’ mental well-being by eliciting a transient sense of relaxation, peacefulness, and happiness. Further studies need to be performed in order to validate EcoRift’s effect on physiology; however, preliminary data suggests that immersive virtual nature also acts to decrease blood pressure. Overall, EcoRift shows to be a promising tool for bridging access to remote natural environments and may be a mentally beneficial activity for patients isolated in hospitals, hospices, and nursing homes.