Volunteers aim to keep seniors sharp with virtual reality

An area effort is exploring the potential benefits of virtual reality for seniors.

Virtual reality is being used for more than just gaming. The technology is finding its place in areas including health care, military exercises and education.

Volunteers from La Crosse’s Pump House Regional Arts Center have brought virtual reality to area students, and on Monday, they introduced the technology to senior citizens at Benedictine Living Community in La Crosse.

The intent was to exercise their memories and allow them to virtually travel around the world.

“Well, it’s very thrilling,” resident Arlene Jensen said.

Without leaving the comfort of the living community, she was able to watch “The Lion King” on Broadway.

“I’m practically at the stage, and I don’t know the dance steps. Oh, well,” she said.

Jensen can also revisit Hawaii, all thanks to virtual reality headsets.

She said her age didn’t hold her back from trying the new technology.

“I’m 81, but I’m not dead yet,” Jensen said.

“My role is to bring our seniors back to life with entertainment,” said Kathy Helgerson, owner of Simple Steps to Technology.

She partnered with Pump House to introduce seniors in the community to virtual reality.

“It stimulates the mind, and it brings joy and pleasure,” she said.

With apps such as Google Earth, residents like Richard Puent, who can no longer travel, can still explore the world.

“This is fantastic,” he said. “I don’t have to leave my easy chair. You can see everything, It’s just amazing what they’ve done with electronics.”

“There’s so many benefits with virtual reality,” Pump House volunteer Rachel Ausman said. “You can just see people light up when they’re using it. It’s a completely new experience.”

Helgerson said virtual reality can also help with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

“We can take them to places they used to live, and although they may forget immediately after, that feeling can stay with them for up to two days — the sensation of the joy they feel and memories that come back,” she said.

“I know it sparks memory; it sparks excitement,” Ausman said. “It’s just something new and fresh, for really anyone, any age.”

For Jensen, it’s an experience she won’t soon forget.

“It was very thrilling, very exciting,” she said. “That’s a good experience.”

Pump House volunteers hope to come back to the living community within the next couple months.

The Oculus equipment was bought thanks to a grant for Artspire last year.

Since then, volunteers have been working to introduce virtual reality technology to the community.