For older adults, VR has its perks

For older adults, VR has its perks

URBANA — When people hear "virtual reality," many think of kids donning headsets to play video games.

But Kesh Kesavadas is thinking about the endless applications that can be used to improve the lives of another demographic — senior citizens.

For example, VR programs are already helping seniors improve their memories, movement, flexibility and nutrition; helping with depression and feelings of isolation; and allowing them to engage in hobbies or learn new skills.

Those with limited mobility can attend concerts and athletic events, visit a museum or take a stroll through a park — or a destination halfway across the world.

And that's just the beginning.

"The older adults may actually be the audience that adopts this much more in the future," said Kesavadas, director of the Health Care Engineering Systems Center at the University of Illinois' Grainger College of Engineering.

Now, Kesavadas and fellow UI Professor Wendy Rogers are leading the Proactive Aging through Technology for Health (PATH) Research Consortium.

A joint venture with Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins and Morgan State, the consortium brings together academia and industry partners to identify the needs of the aging population and gaps in products and services and develop a plan enhancing their daily life through innovative technology.

The venture was funded with a $100,000 planning grant from the National Science Foundation.

Rogers -- a Khan professor of Applied Health Sciences and program director of CHART: Collaborations in Health, Aging, Research, and Technology, which is involved in PATH -- studies aging trends and projections. She notes: "There are more older people in the world."

Locally, she said, 8.6 percent of the population in Urbana is currently 65 or older. It's 8.8 percent in Champaign and 15.4 in Savoy.

"We haven't even peaked yet," Kesavadas said, adding that won't happen for another 10 to 15 years.

Rogers said consortium members first met in Baltimore last November to study the aging population's needs. Then they met at Georgia Tech in Atlanta to talk about workforce development and "the different ways of teaching students about the needs of technology and health aging" and "engaging a diverse group of educational partners" to do that.

Last week, about 60 people — including consortium members and industry partners such as senior community companies, IT companies and robotics designers in Illinois — gathered for a daylong workshop at the Spurlock Museum. Another 20 or so — including representatives from the National Institute on Aging and members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging — were able to watch through livestream video.

The main topics: enhancing an individual's capabilities, sustaining people's abilities over time, restoring function following surgery or injury and issues of caregiving.

"It was really a brainstorming workshop to think about what technologies are currently available and what are on the horizon, and then looking at that information in terms of what are older adult needs," Rogers said. "We also discussed being aware of the diversity of needs and a wide range of capabilities of older adults. Another key aspect is keeping older adults engaged in the community, the workforce and society."

"There's a lot of interest from the engineering side to apply engineering principles to help develop systems that will help the aging population," Kesavadas said.

In addition to virtual reality programs, he and Rogers said smartphone apps, wearable technology, smart home technology, robots and sensors are just some of the innovations that are helping people manage their health, finances and home and maintain or improve their quality of life.

Kesavadas said technology will continue to change rapidly.

"It has also become cheaper," he added. "Something that may look expensive today will be more affordable and may be part of our daily lives in the future."

Rogers said the next steps will involve developing a report from the workshop, identifying priorities and pursuing different funding opportunities through the federal government and foundations.

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