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Virtual reality, cure the isolation of the elderly

WORLD
By AFP | August 5th 2019
Nidia Silva samples a virtual reality experience in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, Florida.

Nidia Silva, 78, has always wanted to swim with dolphins. A dream (almost) come true thanks to the virtual reality glasses that made him try an association of Miami fighting in this way against the depression and isolation of the elderly.

"It is an unknown world, but very beautiful", describes with enthusiasm the septuagenarian, who says to have the impression of lounging in the waters of Cuba, where she emigrated twenty years ago.

This opportunity was offered to her by a Frenchwoman, Alexandra Ivanovitch, who came to experience her virtual reality glasses in a park in the Little Havana neighborhood, where many Cuban retirees like to play dominoes.

His project, called "VR Genie", is designed to combat the isolation that older people often face, especially those living alone or in retirement homes with few activities.

"We use virtual reality to fulfill their wishes," says the 35-year-old Parisian doctor of digital humanities.

From bars in Havana to the highest peaks in the world, the technique allows them to forget the space of a few minutes the sultry summer of Florida to escape to countries often unknown.

"We are making the world accessible to them," says Alexandra Ivanovitch, as many of the older people she works with no longer have the physical or financial capacity to travel the world.

Proposed by the non-profit organization Equality Lab, the project "VR Genie" is funded by local authorities. The goal is to provide virtual reality goggles to the county's retirement homes, as soon as the French woman has expanded her "dream library".

 "Very relaxing"

Scientific studies have recently shown that virtual reality can help fight depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and other psychological problems.

"We know that mental imagery or meditation can have benefits in terms of cognition and things of that nature," says Aldrich Chan, a neuropsychologist at the University of Miami.

Consultant for Equality Lab, the scientist analyzes the potential benefits of virtual reality in supporting older people, including virtually fulfilling their last dreams.

A team from the University of California at Los Angeles is studying the use of virtual reality in the treatment of anhedonia, a symptom of depression that prevents people living with it from feeling positive emotions in a number of situations.

Psychiatrist Michelle Craske and her colleagues are working to treat anhedonia and improve the well-being of patients through meditation and positive experiences in virtual reality.

"Most treatments have so far contributed to some extent to reducing the negative symptoms of depression, without really helping patients to become more positive," said the researcher in April in the scientific journal STAT.

According to a study published this year by Michelle Craske in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, patients with positive experiences, including virtual reality, showed lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress than those treated with the traditional method, focused on negative symptoms.

In the park of Little Havana, Nidia Silva, her glasses on the eyes, gently brews the air with her hands, caressing imaginary dolphins.

"It's great!", Exclaims she, impervious to the domino games that are playing around her. "You are transported to another world, it is very relaxing".

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