Virtual Reality Turns Games Into Treatments

Seniors are utilizing virtual reality programs to boost physical therapy, fight acute and chronic pain and address mental health concerns.

A man uses a virtual reality headset.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Joe O'Connor, 62, who lives near Worcester, Mass., was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease six years ago. Exercise is one of the only things that slows the progress of the chronic disease, so he works out avidly -- often in a virtual reality world. He dances. He plays tennis. He enjoys games that help him work on his short-term memory and hand-eye coordination. "VR has been a very big help with Parkinson's, both in slowing the progression and in helping me calm down," O'Connor says.

Virtual reality has been around for years to help treat physical ailments and improve mental health, but it took lighter, less expensive headsets that could be used without a computer for VR to really take off. The headsets can now cost hundreds instead of thousands of dollars. Primarily used in hospitals and clinics, virtual reality is quickly segueing into the home and senior center market where VR programs enhance physical therapy, help combat acute and chronic pain, and potentially address a variety of mental health challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder. The programs consist of games and scenarios that headsetwearing patients manipulate either through hand-held controllers or eye tracking, and the technology has become more lifelike and interactive.

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Contributing Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Alina Tugend is a long-time journalist who has worked in Southern California, Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., London and New York. From 2005 to 2015, she wrote the biweekly Shortcuts column for The New York Times business section, which received the Best in Business Award for personal finance by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Times, The Atlantic, O, the Oprah Magazine, Family Circle and Inc. magazine. In 2011, Riverhead published Tugend's first book, Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong.