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Swedish council tests virtual reality in care for vulnerable people

Local authority is testing virtual reality technology to provide care services to vulnerable groups such elderly and disabled citizens

Elderly and handicapped people in a municipality in south Stockholm, Sweden, will soon have access to virtual reality (VR) tools as a first step in a more extensive plan to use VR to improve mental health.

The first users, in the municipality of Huddinge, are people who live in specific care units. Care workers will be able to improve communication with residents and provide virtual experiences to help with mental health issues.

Department staff have already carried out a small pilot test with three residents and will this year embark on a longer test in which about 60 residents will be offered VR, should they like to try it.

Development leader Dana Hagström is convinced the project will prove interesting for most of the residents it will be offered to.

“We will try this on two categories of residents – the elderly and residents with cognitive disabilities,” said Annika Sefbom, section manager in Huddinge’s department for social and elder care.

The pilot will involve both elderly residents in housing units designed specifically for their needs, and young people with special needs and cognitive disorders who also live in the area.

Huddinge has tried such unconventional care methods before. Some of the staff who provided daily help to residents also had technical skills and decided to use the game World of Warcraft to communicate with a resident who had an autistic behavioural disorder. It was found to be easier to communicate with that person via the tool.

Unfortunately, carers’ jobs are considered temporary and the staff who worked with this resident have since left their jobs.

Now the department’s leaders want to use VR, and see no limit to what digital tools can achieve in improving caregiving in their units and the life experience of residents there.

“We started our digitisation journey a long time ago and a few years ago, we were using World of Warcraft with some residents,” said Hagström. “It meant that they got more trustful and would let our staff come into their homes.

“Some home aid workers were also, privately, gamers and as a result had the required technical skills. When they left, no one used World of Warcraft any longer. However, we always remembered that we needed to add value, something extra, to do even better.

“Later on, we started speaking about what we could do with VR – almost jokingly, to start with. Our experience with World of Warcraft was something at least similar to build on. The idea came to us five or six years ago and the real project started about a year ago as a trial.”

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At the beginning of 2019, Huddinge municipality contacted a company that could enable it to try out VR glasses. It then had to find money for the trial, which can be tricky for local authorities, not least because there are no scientific studies confirming the effectiveness of VR in helping people with cognitive problems or dementia.

The head of the department decided to make a start on the programme and at least one politician on the council took an interest and asked for more information.

Hagström said department staff and leadership looked at the VR tools and tried the technology on themselves. Another test was carried out on some of the elderly residents.

One elderly woman who took part wore VR glasses and experienced virtual farm life, something well known to her – her father had run a farm and she used to help him with it. Seeing and experiencing what it was like to be on a farm brought excitement and joy to the woman.

When considering the other group of intended VR users, handicapped citizens, the department chose to include residents with severe mental disabilities as well as mobility problems – people who are the hardest to reach.

“We have people here who are very locked in emotionally,” said Hagström. “We can’t get through to them easily, even to talk about normal daily things. We have therefore made a brave decision to try VR on them first and not on other groups to find out if we can get results.”

Sefborn added: “It also makes it easy to talk with residents. The VR experience is a fantastic new tool.”

The department is now on the lookout for technically skilled staff to work on the project, which will run for three years. The team hopes that other departments will also try out VR technology.

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