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Virtual reality supports wellbeing of older people

Barbara and Gemma web
Virtual reality supports wellbeing of older people
27 July 2023

The innovative use of virtual reality (VR) headsets in the care of older people at Sevenacres Mental Health Unit at St Mary’s Hospital is up for a national award.

Afton Ward, an inpatient mental health ward at St Mary’s Hospital, has been shortlisted for a Royal College of Nursing Award for its use of virtual reality in promoting the wellbeing of older people. 

Over the last 12 months patients have enjoyed a new, virtual experience alongside more traditional activities such as arts and crafts and music therapy which is having a positive impact on their overall mood and wellbeing.

The VR headsets offer programmes to promote relaxation and physical activity, reduce levels of anxiety and distress and encourage mental stimulation and are benefitting people with a range of diagnoses, including dementia. 

Gemma Prangnell, Practice Development Lead Nurse on Afton Ward said: “Offering the experience of virtual reality has been incredibly positive. VR is a tool that helps us to learn more about people’s lives and their interests which sparks conversation and helps to build relationships. We get to know the person, not just their diagnosis or their difficulties, and we can support them more effectively.

“We’ve transported a patient back to his working life as a mechanic in the RAF through spending time in the cockpit of a replica triplane from WW1 as it was doing laps at an air show.

“Some patients have chosen to be transported to the heart of the Borneo rainforest or under the ocean, while others have experienced flying above the mountains in a wing suit. It has opened up so many opportunities and people have found it fun and really enjoyable. We’re excited to continue to explore what it can offer in supporting people’s mental health and wellbeing.”

Afton ward has been part of a national mental health safety improvement programme which aims to reduce the use of ‘restrictive practice’ within mental health inpatient settings.  Using interventions such as VR before crisis point is reached can reduce the need for restrictive practices by providing distraction and helping to reduce levels of anxiety, boredom, frustration or agitation.

Anthony Scott, Activity Coordinator on Afton Ward first introduced the use of VR through his experience of using his own headset at home.  Anthony recognised the potential benefits for patients on the ward. He said: “Activities on the ward are essential to reduce people’s boredom and aid their recovery. Offering as wide a variety of activities as possible means there will be something for everyone to participate in and VR gives our patients the means to leave the ward and travel to the places they have always wanted to go.

“The possibilities with VR are endless and we are continuing to explore it in other areas, including patients with chronic pain, which is really interesting.”

The RCN Nursing Awards celebrate innovation, skill and commitment across 15 categories, including greener nursing practice, digital innovation, learning disability nursing, mental health nursing and team of the year.

The winners will be announced at a ceremony to be held later this year.

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