Virtual Visits: Using Virtual Reality to Connect Residents to Distant Family Members

A new study explores senior living residents’ use of immersive virtual reality to connect with family members from a distance.

Twenty-one residents with mild cognitive impairment or dementia, from a single senior living community, participated in the study along with a family member for each. On average, residents were 83 years of age, while family members were about 60 and included mostly adult children and a few siblings. Each resident participated, with his or her family member, in one 30-minute session per week over four weeks. The first session was a standard telephone call between the resident and family member, and the following three sessions consisted of a different virtual reality (VR) experience using a VR headset. In one session, participants experienced five travel adventures; another session explored locations from the residents’ past; and the last session was a virtual photo sharing experience.

Residents and family members completed a survey at the end of each session. The results showed that, overall, residents and family members were satisfied with the VR experiences and reported very little discomfort using the headset. They also reported relatively high levels of immersion and copresence.

Conversational and physical engagement in the VR sessions were measured by recording the level of behavior in each session. The three VR sessions were found to be more vocally and physically engaging than the telephone call, and the two reminiscence therapy sessions (photo sharing and visiting past locations) were the most conversationally engaging.

The use of VR technology is becoming more common and will likely continue to grow in senior living. This study showed that even residents with mild cognitive impairment or dementia can benefit from engaging with VR experiences. In fact, residents with dementia found the VR experiences to be slightly more engaging than did the residents with mild cognitive impairment. Family members are not always able to visit residents in their community; even when they do, experiences can be limited to what the community can offer. While VR won’t replace in-person connections, it can offer another way to connect for residents and their family members.


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Affi T, Collins NL, Rand K, Fujiwara K, et al. Testing the feasibility of virtual reality with older adults with cognitive impairments and their family members who live at a distance. Innovation in Aging (2021), 5(2).


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