Virtual reality has become an increasingly popular gaming application, but experiencing and interacting with the 3-D world has benefits beyond sheer entertainment. According to new research, participating in virtual reality support groups may provide an effective option for older adults dealing with grief.

Losing a loved one causes many emotions that are often hard to make sense of. To cope with those feelings, many individuals turn to support groups to guide them along their grief journey.

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However, an in-person meeting isn’t always feasible for everyone due to various obstacles, such as physical immobility or medical conditions. This is especially true for adults over the age of 65. To better understand if virtual reality support groups are an effective option, researchers from the University of Arizona conducted a small study among widows and widowers.

The study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, involved 30 widows and widowers older than 50 years old, whom were bereaved for about nine months on average. Some of the participants were assigned to engage in a virtual reality support group twice a week for hour-long sessions, through the online platform called Second Life. The other study subjects were assigned to read one passage a week (approximately one page in length) that came from the blog HelloGrief.

Both groups received information about the same topics, including how to maintain physical health, relaxation techniques, dating and parenting, social reengagement, and dealing with the personal property of the deceased, among others.

At the end of the of the eight-week study period, and again two months later, a total of 27 participants completed questionnaires about their experience. The researchers found that both groups reported improved levels of stress, loneliness, and sleep quality, but only the individuals in the virtual reality group showed improved symptoms of depression.

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“One of the best treatments for depression is behavioral activation,” study author Lindsey Knowles said in a news release. “People who are depressed, or have more depressive symptoms, often remove themselves from their environment and from doing things that provide positive reinforcement and give them a sense of value. Showing up for a group twice a week—even if it is virtual—is a way for them to engage in the world that they haven’t been.”

The virtual reality group was immersed in an animated living room at a seaside cabin. The participants choose a character to represent themselves, and then communicated online via a chatroom feature. During their sessions, participants were lectured on various topics. They also got to engage with one another and share their personal experiences.

"Group members often shared things like: 'Right now I'm crying at my keyboard, and I would never do this in person, but because I feel like there's this anonymity, I can break down, while my avatar looks perfectly fine,'" said Knowles.

The follow-up questionnaires revealed the participants in the virtual reality group felt as if they were in a real life setting. Knowles notes that further research needs to be conducted to see how virtual support groups and educational websites, like HelloGrief, compare to in-person support groups, or simply just the letting time pass by.

"With the graying of America that is happening, we expect that more people are going to be widowed as baby boomers age," she said. "Losing a spouse is a huge life transition and a profoundly stressful event. All of us will experience different types of grief in our lives, and having accessible resources that are evidence-based is really important."

See also:

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