Virtual reality (VR) can give memory care patients in CalVet homes a look back into their lives or help them see the world.

Giving VR a go in Fresno.

Robert, a 90-year-old Navy veteran, peered into a pair of goggles and saw the Great Wall of China in all of its VR glory.

“I’ve been there,” he said. “The Great Wall wasn’t as big – wide – as it looks.”

For a few moments at least, VR technology unlocked his memories and took him back to a place he had visited as a much younger man. Robert is a resident in a memory care unit at the Veterans Home of California (VHC), operated by the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet).

After test-driving the program introduced by the Fresno County Library last September, CalVet recently purchased a kit that includes 10 pairs of VR goggles for the VHC-Fresno. It will do the same for each of the Veterans Homes with memory care in the system. Each headset is equipped with a built-in phone that links to a notebook computer. The notebook taps into Google’s free Expeditions app that offers roughly 900 photos of places around the globe, with 360-degree views.

“We can literally just pick whatever program the resident wants to do that day,” said Carrie Vigil, Administrator of VHC-Fresno’s Skilled Nursing Facility. It helps them all in some manner, it’s very calming for them,” she said “It decreases their anxieties. We actually had one gentleman in one of the groups who doesn’t typically talk, pull down the goggles and said, ‘Wow!’ That wasn’t him normally. It was a real breakthrough with that resident.”

Coby Petersen, CalVet’s Deputy Secretary for Veterans Homes, said the estimated $5,000 cost of each VR kit will be money well spent because it directly improves the lives of our veterans in the Homes.

“It has endless possibilities,” Petersen said.  “We have a commitment to innovation, and this system takes it to the next level. We have seen the benefits of VR technology, and we care about improving our residents’ quality of life.”

Resident enjoying his first
VR experience at the Home.

VR technology has been around since the late 1960s. It is hugely popular among video gamers, and has evolved to include a wide variety of uses. Thousands of World War II veterans have taken Honor Flights to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Those physically unable to make the trip can now tour it without leaving their homes by using a VR program to see every bit of the memorial.

“Memory care is another growing benefit, and CalVet plans to use the program extensively throughout all eight of the Veterans Homes, as it has already done with music therapy proven to help Alzheimer’s patients. Joining the two programs could be extra beneficial,” Petersen said.

The technology also makes it possible to personalize the program. Family members could bring in photos from the resident’s past and download them into the notebook. Since many memory loss patients retain recollections from their youth, seeing their old home, street, family, and friends could, for a time, bring those memories out of hiding.

For now, though, the Google Expeditions program is the starting point. Roughly 40 veterans live in the Fresno Home’s memory care wing. KaPria Mua, the Home’s activities coordinator, recently conducted the first in-house session with the new equipment. Each class includes 10 to 12 residents, with some trading off between photos. Or, staff can conduct one-on-one sessions in the residents’ rooms.

Resident is unsure at first, then adventurous with the new program.

VR can take the Home members around the world, to places they’ve been or always wanted to go or, just stimulate their memories. Some photos are of well-known landmarks, such as the Colosseum in Rome and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Other options include beaches and undersea adventures. Some, like the Great Wall, are places these veterans might have visited. In Robert’s case, it drew out experiences and recollections that time and the brain might otherwise hold hostage.

Their first group session tapped their interests, particularly photos of Mayan ruins.

“I’ve been to Mexico, but I’ve never been there (Mayan ruins),” said Roger, an 81-year-old Army veteran. “It makes me want to relive it.”

Ernie, an 89-year-old Air Force veteran and retired history teacher, wanted to step right into the scene. “I’d like to go visit it,” he said. “Let’s go there.”

Manuel, an 82-year-old Navy veteran, reacted to the photos from Mexico and Yosemite National Park. “Tijuana was never like that (referring to the Mayan ruins),” he said. And when the photo of Half Dome appeared, he piped right up. “I took a trip out there one time.” And he got to see and remember it again – virtually – without even leaving the Home.

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