Months of reduced physical activity and isolation due to COVID-19 lockdowns are taking their toll on seniors’ flexibility, strength and endurance, as well as emotional and social well-being.
The emphasis moving forward should be on infection control, and on giving people information, encouragement and support to increase fitness while at home, as social distance measures are likely to continue into the future.
Although “average life expectancy” is a commonly used term, “healthy life expectancy” is a far more valuable metric. It describes amount of time one can live life without disability, frailty and dementia. Growing evidence suggests that it is possible to increase healthy life expectancy by increasing physical, social and mental activity, delaying or preventing dependency on others and the need for care.
For example, members or volunteers in community programs such as the Bruce Trail Conservancy can be confident that they are both helping with the well-being of others, and engaging in activities that will reduce the risk of dementia, disability and frailty for themselves.
However, these activities may not be possible for those who are housebound for part, or all of the year. One option for these individuals is to use Virtual Reality (VR) to walk through nature trails from the comfort of their home, and, of particular importance in Canada, walk daily regardless of the weather conditions outside.
VR mimics real world through headsets that generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations to mimic the user’s physical experience in a virtual environment.
A person using virtual reality equipment can look around the artificial world, move around in it, and interact with its items or features. VR can also be created through specially designed rooms with multiple large screens displaying the artificial environment.
Using a measurement called Useful Field Of Vision (UFOV), it has been shown that VR can improve the speed with which a person can see and react to a potential threat, such as a car appearing at speed from a side street. These improvements can reduce car crash risk, thereby increasing independence of older adults. The increase in reaction speed is so great that some insurers in the U.S. have started to ask their clients whose age is increasing to undertake this form of training.
Equally important to physical fitness in older age is maintaining social activity. People who are living longer can stay socially active through volunteer work, employment or starting a new business. Older adults can also engage in this form of activity from the comfort of their homes, through gathering data in research projects, such as those organized by Zooniverse. Although the priority for housebound older adults is to get them out of the house as often as possible, the internet offers opportunities to supplement face-to-face contact through technologies such as the Amazon Alexa Skill software, Zoom video calling, and VR software.
Some ideas for how to stay engaged in the community using technology:
• Set up a VR group to raise money for a good cause, or to compete with other groups who are housebound. Be in a group with a purpose.
• Join an online book club listening to Fifteen Dogs (Giller Prize-winning novel by Canadian André Alexis) on Audible, or a discussion group about writing apologue fiction.
• Do an augmented reality tour of the Royal Ontario Museum while standing up, using a treadmill to walk and climb stairs.
• Use your treadmill and a virtual walk app to explore famous trails around the world, for example: https://monkeysandmountains.com/virtual-hikes/.
• Join an online concert party in the evening for music and a discussion.
In July this year, a survey by Age-Well found that 58 per cent of Canadians aged 65-plus and almost eight in 10 (78 per cent) aged 50 to 64 own smartphones. Eighty-six per cent of Canadians aged 65-plus and 94 per cent of Canadians aged 50-plus report being online daily – see survey infographic at: https://agewell-nce.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/OATechSurvey-SEP2019-EN-Final.pdf.
If the above activities about staying in the community using technology sound exciting, but the technology seems intimidating, two free programs offer students as technology mentors for older adults:
• Cyber Seniors – 1-844-217-3057, email email@example.com or visit website www.cyberseniors.org
• enTECH Computer Club – 1-226-336-9684, www.entech.club
These programs match tech-savvy students with older adults looking for help. The students gain practical experience while earning volunteer hours and developing job skills that enhance opportunities for future employment, and older adults gain valuable skills to help keep them connected to the community and pursue virtual reality websites to enhance their at-home physical and social activity levels.
Larry W. Chambers has authored 175 articles and books concerning disease prevention (e.g. dementia), quality improvement in long-term care homes, and innovative approaches for continuing professional development. He is research director of the Niagara Regional Campus, School of Medicine, McMaster University. Hanna Levy and Eva Liu are medical students at the Niagara Regional Campus of the McMaster University School of Medicine.