A group of Santa Ynez Valley seniors took a whirlwind tour of the world this week, making stops in such faraway lands as Africa, Italy and Scotland without ever leaving home.
Residents of the Golden Inn & Village volunteered to be fitted with high-tech visors and headphones that immersed them in worlds they’d never encountered before to launch a pilot program testing the therapeutic value of virtual reality.
Seated in swivel chairs in a Golden Village recreation room, the residents slowly rotated around, looking up and down, sometimes reaching out to touch something, laughing, ooohing and aaahing at the three-dimensional experiences.
“It was so real it made me jump,” said Erlinda Delgado after she finished her international tour. “I didn’t expect to go so far away.”
“I did not expect it to be so real,” added Antonia Delgado, who is no relation to Erlinda. “It was like I was really, really there. That’s what makes it so exciting.”
She said she was especially impressed by the elephants in Africa.
“I wanted to get on top of one,” she confided.
The virtual reality gear uses content specifically created for seniors, said Chris Brickler, chief executive officer of MyndVR, a health and tech startup that’s been working with the University of Texas at Dallas to develop the system as a way to improve seniors’ cognitive abilities.
“It’s recreational in nature, but it’s also become very therapeutic,” Brickler explained. “This is the first project of its kind in Southern California. It’s never been done before.”
Brickler said the company reverse engineered the gear so it’s easy to navigate and easy for seniors to move in and out of the virtual reality experience.
“We’re taking a really caring and loving approach in how we serve seniors,” he said.
MyndVR technology is aimed at improving the lives and health of seniors who might be less mobile or who are experiencing anxiety, depression or agitation by evoking nostalgia and serenity as a form of therapy.
“If they honeymooned in Paris, we can take them back there,” Brickler said. “If they never got to see the Great Wall of China, we can take them there.
“They find a very relaxing, calming state,” he said. “They’re escaping out of the environment they’re in now and going into a new world.”
Some of the virtual reality experiences involve being surrounded by kittens or puppies, while others revolve around music, nature or travel.
“We can take them underwater, give them some of the most blissful sunsets,” Brickler said as Carla Robbins and Pat Martinez were fitted with the goggles and headphones for their trip into virtual reality.
“Oh! Ooooooo,” Robbins said as the program began to roll. “I don’t know where I am.”
She began spinning slowly around in her chair, laughing, reaching out, tilting her head back and leaning forward.
“There are ferns nearby,” she said, reaching out to touch them, then leaning her head back to gaze skyward. “And hot air balloons!”
Not far away, Martinez was doing much the same things, especially laughing.
“The happiness factor,” Brickler said. “You’ll see a lot of smiles on faces. If they’re happy and having fun, that’s part of the battle.”
Tony Morris, director of Community Outreach & Alliances for Golden Inn & Village, said a different experience will be offered residents each week.
“It’s open to all,” he added. “We’re just thrilled. It’s another type of activity we can provide to make their lives more fulfilled.”
Rona Barrett, who conceptualized the affordable independent living campus in Santa Ynez and launched the Rona Barrett Foundation to make it happen, was equally enthusiastic about the MyndVR system.
“It’s just wonderful. I’m so excited,” she said. “It’s the first of its kind, and we’ve got it right here.”
Brickler said Golden Inn & Village was chosen for the pilot program because, as a result of his media work, he was aware of Barrett’s work as a former entertainment journalist and her efforts on behalf of seniors.
“Her ideas were perfectly aligned with everything MyndVR was working on,” he said.
At that point, it was time for Robbins and Martinez to surrender the gear to give the next pair of volunteers their chance to experience virtual reality.
“Are you taking me out of this world? No, no, no, no,” Robbins said, laughing, as she surrendered the setup.
“It was sort of like out-of-body,” she said, trying to describe the experience. “It was just a feeling of peace and contentment. I want more.”
Asked what she liked the most, she responded, “I think probably the travel — just the panoramic scenes. To see such beauty. I feel like I have my head in the clouds.”