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Jane Auchter, 85, a resident at Encore at Avalon Park assisted living facility, gets some help from Encore activities director Shannon Manning to view a Mynd Virtual Reality video on Wednesday, July 12, 2017. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Assisted living tries virtual reality to help seniors with dementia

ORLANDO, Fla. — Black-and-white-striped angelfish glide past Mary Spencer as she scuba dives for the first time in her 84 years.

Above, the sun glows white at the top of the Thai sea. Below, a school of bright orange fish darts by.

"Oh, it's a beautiful blue ocean," the Orlando native said. "There goes a diver. He's floating by."

The retired Walt Disney World worker's next adventure could take her to the Grand Canyon or on a safari — without ever leaving her home in an east Orange County assisted-living facility. She's among the residents testing whether virtual reality can help people with dementia.

"We are trying to be on the cutting edge of what we provide to our residents," said Kimberly Edwards, executive director at Encore at Avalon Park assisted living and memory care.

Encore at Avalon Park is the third senior residence in the country to test the virtual-reality system created by MyndVR, a Dallas startup whose partners are Samsung and the University of Texas at Dallas.

All 89 residents will have a chance to try the 360-degree experience, but only 16 will participate in the four-week field trial — eight with dementia and eight without.

Encore at Avalon Park assisted living facility Executive Director Kim Edwards, right, helps resident John Auchter with a headset

They'll spend no more than half an hour at a time looking at three- to five-minute scenes meant to evoke nostalgia, serenity and wonder. Choices include a 1950s jazz club with a live singer and patrons sipping martinis, a sunset on a farm and a painter creating a flower-filled canvas.

MyndVR hopes the scenes will soothe the patients with dementia and reduce agitation and depression.

During a past trial in Plano, Texas, a few residents without memory loss were allowed to try a skydiving segment that was a hit with an 85-year-old woman, Brickler said.

"Our plan is to essentially be the Netflix of VR for seniors," MyndVR CEO and co-found Chris Brickler, 45, said on a visit to kick off the trial last week at Encore at Avalon Park.

That's why the equipment is designed to be light enough for comfort and easy to navigate.

It consists of a headphones and a headset powered by a specially programmed cellphone. The user sits in an office swivel chair under the supervision of a staff member trained by MyndVR. Slowly twirling the chair and moving the head create the panoramic effect.

"The hurdles are far less than we thought, and the unintended benefits are starting to be more than we anticipated," said Brickler, who plans to lease the equipment to senior-care residences across the Sunbelt, where many older people live.

No scientific studies prove the value of the technology among patients with dementia or other seniors.

But with society aging fast — the U.S. Census Bureau predicts the 65-and-older population will grow from 49.1 million in 2016 to 83.7 million in 2050 and 98.2 million in 2060 — several other companies in the U.S. and abroad also are experimenting with or marketing VR to senior-care and senior-living communities, hospitals and consumers.

Jane Auchter, 85, a resident at Encore at Avalon Park assisted living facility, takes a virtual-reality trip to the Grand Canyon

Dr. Rosemary Laird, a Winter Park geriatrician whose specialties include memory disorders, said the technology sounds promising — if only to bring the world to people who no longer can venture out.

One caveat, she said, would be to avoid scenarios that might frighten or overwhelm seniors who can't distinguish reality from the virtual world.

Virtual reality is part of a leap in care from three or four decades ago, when nursing homes tied unruly patients to chairs or their beds to keep them from hurting themselves or others, said Daniel Paulson, a professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida.

Later, drugs took the place of restraints, said Paulson, who is not familiar with the VR project but is involved with a music-therapy pilot program that pairs middle schoolers with residents at Encore at Avalon Park.

"No one wants to go into a nursing home and learn that grandma has been drugged into submission," he said.

At minimum, Encore at Avalon Park administrators hope to inject a novel diversion into the lives of their residents.

"If it doesn't decrease their anxiety or depression, at the very least it gives them an enjoyable experience for half an hour and increases their quality of life," Edwards said.

Story by  usan Jacobson / Orlando Sentinel