The Virtual Reality-Empathy Connection Illuminates the Experience of Aging

By Jacqueline Lauder

Professionals who work in aging services believe they have a firm grasp on the challenges related to aging. Yet despite what they think they know, many may not understand the re­alities of the aging experience until they themselves are aging.

Consider this example: a couple is out for a special dinner. Because the wife has declining vi­sion, it is hard for her to read the small, cursive script on the menu. On top of that, her spouse points out a stain on her shirt sleeve—a spot she couldn’t see while dressing. Instead of enjoying their dinner, the wife feels embarrassed about not being able to read the menu and about wearing a dirty shirt.

Such scenarios happen daily, yet oftentimes go unnoticed or are misunderstood by family, friends and others in the community.

Fostering Empathy Using Virtual Reality

By 2040, 20 percent of the total U.S. population will be ages 65 and older —that amounts to more than 81 million people. This rapid expansion not only impacts communities and fam­ilies, but also transforms the way business is conducted and services are delivered. For those who work in the healthcare field, this growth presents a unique opportunity to better understand the needs, expe­riences and perspectives of older adults.

SCAN Health Plan designed Trading Ages more than a dozen years ago to allow anyone who interacts with older adults to gain greater insight into and empathy toward older adults.

A training program designed to help participants become more sensitive to older adults’ experiences, each workshop replicates the experience, via role-playing simulations, of having age-related conditions such as hearing loss, vision changes, loss of dexterity and more. Through these mock encounters, which are incorporated into a larger educational session, participants get a real sense of the physi­cal, social and emotional aspects of aging.

Building on the success of the “analog” version of Trading Ages, SCAN has taken the program to the next level, tapping the immersive power of virtual reality (VR) to significantly enhance the program and its efficacy. VR shows great promise for the healthcare industry as a whole, offering the ability to empower patients to manage their own health, as well as to enable new cost-saving treatment strategies.

The use of VR in healthcare is expected to grow by 54.5 percent through 2023. At SCAN, we believe the VR component is an effective way to enhance the Trading Ages ex­perience. For those who have not tried VR, it is as if one were transported into another reality as the main character in an alternate world. One “becomes” the older adult. The VR experience can trigger empathy like no other medium.

Technology: A Gateway to Dignity and Respect?

Denise Likar, vice president of Independence at Home —a SCAN community service—and I presented Trading Ages VR at the 2019 Aging in America Conference, showing attendees how we have made this VR experience accessible to those who need to spend time in an older adult’s shoes.

SCAN partnered with Primacy, an award-winning digital experience agency, to bring Trading Ages to virtual life. The collaboration of subject matter experts in aging and VR allowed SCAN to create a singular and authentic experience, in which a combination of visual effects, 360-degree audio and ingenuity replicated some of the challenges of aging. Those donning the VR headset navigate everyday activities while virtually “having” physical impacts, such as hearing loss and macular degeneration, and “living” through emotional situations, such as being the caregiver for a loved one with dementia.

The feedback received so far on the use of VR in Trading Ages has been overwhelmingly posi­tive. One SCAN employee said, “I’ve learned from the training the importance of understanding that we can’t always see people’s losses. That means we must treat everybody with the dignity and respect they deserve, whether or not we see those losses.”

In participating in this SCAN initiative, I have seen firsthand not only how VR can improve the way aging services organizations serve older adults, but also I have witnessed its profound impact outside of this field. On a personal level, VR can provide family caregivers and others in the com­munity with new levels of insight into the challenges older adults face. This is a demonstration of how technology can break down barriers between age groups and forge stronger connections be­tween older adults, caregivers, communities and the healthcare system.

Jacqueline Lauder is director, Community Giving, at SCAN Health Plan, in Long Beach, Calif.