Using a Nature-based Virtual Reality Environment for Improving Mood States and Cognitive Engagement in Older Adults: A Mixed-method Feasibility Study

Saleh Kalantari, Tong Bill Xu, Armin Mostafavi, Angella Lee, Ruth Barankevich, Walter Boot, Sara Czaja

Engaging with natural environments and representations of nature has been shown to improve mood states and reduce cognitive decline in older adults. The current study evaluated the use of virtual reality (VR) for presenting immersive 360 degree nature videos and a digitally designed interactive garden for this purpose. Fifty participants (age 60 plus), with varied cognitive and physical abilities, were recruited. Data were collected through pre/post-intervention surveys, standardized observations during the interventions, and post-intervention semi structured interviews. The results indicated significant improvements in attitudes toward VR and in some aspects of mood and engagement. The responses to the environment did not significantly differ among participants with different cognitive abilities; however, those with physical disabilities expressed stronger positive reactions on some metrics compared to participants without disabilities. Almost no negative impacts (cybersickness, task frustration) were found. In the interviews some participants expressed resistance to the technology, in particular the digital garden, indicating that it felt cartoonish or unappealing and that it could not substitute for real nature. However, the majority felt that the VR experiences could be a beneficial activity in situations when real-world contact with nature was not immediately feasible.

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