Over the past several months, Instant Israel—CJE’s new virtual reality (VR) travel
program for older adults—has already embarked on virtual tours of Israel with
a broad range of focus groups: the Bureau of Sages Research Advisory Board at
Lieberman Center, a Holocaust Community Services support group of survivors,
My Go-To Place in Niles Township, residents at Weinberg Community, and walkin
community groups at the Bernard Horwich Building.
With plans for hosting even more sessions within CJE’s buildings, as well as throughout the larger community, through synagogues and other venues, CJE’s Community Engagement team is continually evaluating where and how the technology can be utilized to explore new programming opportunities for older adults.
“We’re really looking at this project as an opportunity to learn. As a result, we’ve developed a whole new protocol for working with groups using this technology moving forward,” says Catherine Samatas, CJE’s Community Engagement Manager. “For example, based on our test run with the Holocaust Community Services survivor support group, we’ve looked at using virtual reality with a PTSD perspective in mind, and evaluated how it might be used with individuals who may have experienced some past traumas.”
The Community Engagement team develops virtual tours for each session based on what might be familiar to most people—whether they’ve been to Israel or not. One of their most-visited locations is a market in Jerusalem. “We find that markets are spaces many people in that age group have been to, whether it was in Israel or their own hometown,” says Samatas. “In every session so far, the market has evoked a strong response from participants. People often comment on the colors of the fruit and even the smell of spices.”
Instant Israel’s virtual tours can often elicit emotional responses, more so for people who’ve already traveled to Israel. “It calls up some very real memories if they’ve been there before because it feels like they’re back in that space and time.” People who’ve never been to Israel are generally more fascinated by the tech experience than by the actual places and memories associated with those places. “We often hear, ‘This is really cool. I can’t believe how realistic this is. I feel like I could touch these people.’”
As a result, the team is trying to test virtual reality’s capacity to help people recall and reminisce. “The Instant Israel experience reminded someone in Lieberman Center’s Bureau of Sages group of his youth and where he used to live in Israel, and it got him talking,” says Samatas. “There was a gentleman in the Holocaust Community Services support group who was initially hesitant to participate, but he finally agreed to try it and then didn’t want to take the headset off! We later learned that he never really participates in the usual group programming, but he used to go to Israel with his wife every year. She passed away, so he hadn’t visited in a long time, and was excited to return virtually.”
Participants are often drawn to, or distracted by, children and animals passing by them in the virtual world. They want to interact with the ‘virtual characters,’ so to speak, and some believe the virtual people are really ‘looking at them’ directly. “In terms of reminiscence, these immersive experiences can have quite an impact—one worth researching and exploring further as an agency in various eldercare settings. So I think that’s the future.”
Reminiscence Therapy is a treatment that uses all the senses—sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound—to help individuals with dementia remember events, people, and places from their past lives. As part of the therapy, care partners may use tangible prompts such as photographs, household and other familiar items from the past, music, and archive sound recordings to help individuals recall memories. “We’ve seen how VR technology can trigger people’s memories, and now we’re looking into testing the technology specifically in dementia spaces like CJE’s Adult Day Services, Friend Center, and memory cafes,” says Samatas. “It’s bringing up a lot of memories for people, and we want to research the efficacy of that in populations of people with dementia.”
In tandem with CJE’s Research Department, CJE’s Community Engagement team developed post-VR experience discussion questions, which they ask of participants after each Instant Israel session, and they’re recording those conversations in the hopes of reporting the research findings down the road. “We’ll ask questions like ‘What smells or tastes did you experience during the virtual reality session?’ ‘What objects did you want to reach out and touch in the Israeli locations?’ ‘What feelings or emotions did this virtual reality experience stir up for you?’ CJE Research is collecting and processing the data to help us analyze and evaluate the Instant Israel program as we move forward,” says Samatas. “There’s not a lot of research out there that looks at the usability of this kind of equipment with older adults in a social setting, and we’re looking at integrating technology more and more into CJE programming.”
Instant Israel virtual tours are a fun way to explore technology with older adults who’ve been hesitant to engage with it in the past. It’s a safe and easy way to get them to start thinking about what’s possible through hi-tech media and equipment. “Once someone who’s never interacted with technology before has a good experience through VR, and realizes that it’s not so stressful to navigate, you can introduce them to other platforms, like the internet or mobile apps,” says Samatas. “The one complaint we hear at every virtual tour session is ‘It’s not long enough.’ If you’re leaving people wanting more, you’re giving them something they want, so we’re going to try to do more with the technology.”
From maintaining and supporting the VR equipment to using the technology in programmatic settings to exploring the possibilities of VR’s therapeutic and greater impact beyond entertainment, CJE is discovering there’s much to learn—and even more possibilities to tap into. “Every piece of the Instant Israel project is giving CJE a template for how to move forward with future projects involving virtual reality.