Virtual trips for senior citizens aim to break isolation

Photos by Ginny Kropf: Nick Zarcone, regional manager for Virtu-Well, sets up a virtual reality experience for a senior who wants to go to Japan. The program was introduced recently at the YMCA through efforts of Dean Bellack of Medina.

By Ginny Kropf, correspondent Posted 24 May 2023 at 8:15 am

MEDINA – The Health Foundation of Western and Central New York created the Health Leadership Fellows program in 2004 as one strategy to accomplish its mission of improving outcomes in the communities served by the foundation.

Since the program began more than 300 leaders in Western and Central New York have graduated and 47 team projects have been implemented.

One of the projects currently being implemented was introduced to Orleans County recently through the efforts of Dean Bellack. He is part of a team with Dave Zapfel of Gerard Place, Buffalo; Millie Tomidy Pepper from the YWCA in Batavia; and Jana Capaccio from Horizon Health Services.

Bellack’s sessions started in March 2022 and will conclude in September. Their program design develops skills to create community connections, learn project development and how to work with diverse backgrounds and personalities.

 “Our team is testing whether virtual experiences have merit to help with social isolation and loneliness,” Bellack said. “The National Academies of Sciences 2020 report found approximately 24 percent of people 65 years and older are considered to be socially isolated. This same group reports 43 percent of them feel lonely.”

(Left) Carol Bellack looks through a book listing the hundreds of places and events a senior can experience through virtual reality. (Right) Dean Bellack, a participant in a Health Leadership program, explains the new questions a senior is asked to answer before and after taking part in a virtual reality experience. The program was introduced a week ago at the YMCA.

Recently, more than 30 seniors were invited to the YMCA to try a virtual reality experience.

Nick Zarcone, formerly of Batavia and the regional manager for Virtu-Well, set up the program at the YMCA. Seniors were given a list of 20 questions to answer, relating to how they felt, if they were often depressed or ever felt alone and excluded. After having their virtual experience, they were asked to answer the same questions again.

Overall, the theory behind Virtu-Well is if a senior is happy and doing things they enjoy, he/she will be healthier.

A book, with pictures of hundreds of places and experiences, is provided for seniors to choose what they would like to do. A senior named Sandy wants to travel the world and chose to “visit” Japan. As she sat with the virtual reality goggles on, she gestured with her hands and looked around the room, presumably seeing the sights in Japan.

The Rev. Vince Iorio has always wanted to visit the Pyramids and Sphinx. He gets his wish here at the recent Virtu-Well experience at the YMCA.

Mike Goheen of Lyndonville became a fighter pilot, and like all the experiences, as he sat with the goggles on, his experience was shown on a big screen for the audience to share.

“I always wanted to fly in a fighter plane,” Goheen said after his experience. “It was very realistic, and I wasn’t dizzy.”

Diane Fry of Basom came with her husband Clayton. She went swimming in a coral reef.

“I’ve tried snorkeling before in the Bahamas, and I was scared,” she said. “This was pretty neat.”

The Rev. Vince Iorio has always wanted to visit the Great Pyramids and see the Sphinx in Egypt.

“That’s on my bucket list,” he said.

He sat mesmerized during his virtual visit.

“I wanted to see more,” he said, after removing his goggles. “It was good, but too short.”

Experiences were limited to five minutes a person because of the large turnout of volunteers who wanted to try it.

As an example of the many things to “do,” choices include many large cities and states, swimming with dolphins or sharks, swimming with turtles in Hawaii, visiting the North Pole, attending the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall, exploring the coral reefs in the Philippines, sky diving and much more.

When the team completes their project later this summer, their findings will be submitted as a project paper. These projects will be used to further study or action by the Health Foundation to invest in more research or funding for programs.