The quest for healthy aging in the Metaverse: Cultivating a real virtue of virtual reality

By: Christos Tsagkaris, Dimitrios V. Moysidis, Andreas S. Papazoglou, Anna Loudovikou, Athanasios Alexiou

The third place winner of our Spring 2022 Writing Competition looks into a largely unexplored intersection between aging and the metaverse and provides a vision for a more inclusive virtual environment.

The launch of the Metaverse reveals the tendency of social media platforms to acquire virtual reality (VR) features. Although youth is regarded as the primary target group of most social media platforms, 42% of internet users older than 50 and even 28% of those over 65 are present on social media. During the COVID-19 pandemic, even more elderly sought refuge on social media in order to compensate for the lack of face-to-face human contact. Simultaneously, outside of social media, the total global elderly population grows steadily towards a  two to three-fold increase in individuals aged 65 and over by 2050.

Oculus quest 2 VR headset on white desk.
Photo by Vinicius “amnx” Amano on Unsplash

Social media constitutes a double-edged sword  for seniors. Currently, elderly and middle aged adults are more vulnerable to misinformation, financial fraud and malware on social media. The cumulative damage of this adds up to almost $13 billion every year. As a result of this, more than one million seniors experience pervasive financial hardship. On the other hand, social media has a documented potential to improve health-related outcomes among this population. According to a recent study, these include improved neuropsychological function, cognitive performance and higher levels of social interaction and health literacy. Simultaneously, the risk for social media addiction in this population group is less than 1%. In an aging world, the challenge for social media platforms adopting VR lies in providing a safe and enriching experience to older users.

The two pillars of an elderly-friendly digital environment should be user-friendly interfaces and elderly-oriented services. The former necessitates the understanding of older individuals’ communication capacity, which usually includes visual or hearing impairment, decreased ability to retain information or repeat complicated processes, mood instability, tremor and voice alterations. The latter requires a thorough mapping of needs associated with healthy aging. The United Nations have recently highlighted inclusive building environments, combating ageism and providing integrated long-term care as top priorities towards this end.

Woman in facemask and green shirt holding up a smartphone to show an elderly woman, who is looking at the phone and smiling.
Photo by Georg Arthur Pflueger on Unsplash

Nowadays, the expansion of conventional social media platforms to the VR realm has been marked by investments in gaming, consultation services and business. While healthy aging appears out of this scope, it is still possible to merge investments in these fields with services benefiting seniors. Creating simulation games to provide the elderly with cognitive rehabilitation, falls prevention, healthy eating advice and education should be the “big step” for actual well-being in and beyond virtual space. Similarly, virtual clinics based on the remote healthcare experience acquired during the COVID-19 pandemic can improve accessibility to healthcare services. Further efforts to decrease misinformation and remove hate or discriminatory behaviors targeting the elderly are pivotal as well.

In Europe, the Virtual and Augmented Reality Industrial Coalition (VARC) was established in 2020 to facilitate dialogue between policymakers and the European VA/AR ecosystem. Together with the VR Media Lab of the European Commission and the Pilot Project of the European Parliament for valuable gaming, this platform can support initiatives and entrepreneurial endeavors on healthy aging. To date, this remains a possibility as no relevant projects have come to the attention of the authors. Nevertheless, the collaboration between regulators and the industry can help align entrepreneurial activity with data protection. Similar coalitions are needed all over the globe in order to ensure equitable access to healthy aging services on VR social media platforms.

Transforming conventional social media to a VR interface in a marketable and effective manner is a formidable challenge. The technicalities of integrating healthy aging into this realm are up to the platforms’ experts and stakeholders to decide. However, as healthcare professionals, we point out the need for an elderly-inclusive virtual environment and call upon health bodies, regulators and experts to support this endeavor.

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