The fourth episode of the third season of Charlie Brooker’s acclaimed sci fi anthology, Black Mirror, tells the story of a time in the near future in which the elderly and dying are wired into a virtual reality simulation, a place called San Junipero. They can spend a limited amount of time in the simulation, along with others in the same position in the real world, as well as the full-time population of people who have already passed on. When their time comes, they can be ‘uploaded’ to the simulation and live forever in the San Junipero afterlife.


There is, in real life, the remote possibility that such a simulation could be developed, along with the associated mind upload technology. However, if it is possible, we are a long way from perfecting it. In the meantime, however, the therapeutic properties of virtual reality in palliative care have already been realised.


VR in Hospices


At Bridgepoint Health in Toronto, Canada, dying patients are offered the opportunity to escape to a virtual world where they can fulfil their bucket list dreams in their final weeks. The aim is to help soften the blow of anticipating imminent death, improving mental wellbeing and alleviating pain.


Similar ‘bucket list’ projects are being used in London, such as that at Royal Trinity Hospice in Clapham. The BBC recently filmed the project at the hospice for Inside Out London, in which patient Souzan Aprahamian was able to revisit her native home of Jerusalem thanks to the power of VR. At the hospice, patients are asked about their dreams and their memories, about places they wished they had been, or places to which they wished they could return. They are then given a Samsung Gear or Google Daydream headset with a visual playlist of experiences they could have. At the beginning, this relied solely on existing 360-degree footage. But Flix Films, the company behind the project, is now beginning to shoot original material, custom-tailored to individual patients.


In Leicestershire, charity hospice, Loros, is also using the technology in its end-of-life care.


“Research suggests that the brain accepts the virtual world within 20 seconds after which the experience becomes all-absorbing,” Loros CEO John Knight commented. “We recognize that some of our patients are often restricted to where they can go due to their illness, so we wanted to help give them the opportunity to still enjoy life wider than their restrictions allow, through virtual reality.”


The Power of VR


Research is already demonstrating that virtual reality can be a powerful pain-relieving tool, being, in some situations, just as effective as medication. As a form of distraction therapy, it diverts a patient’s attention from their reality. Reminiscence therapy in VR can be used to trigger past memories in dementia patients.


“If we can help people alleviate their pain without increasing their dosages, or if we can alleviate some of their anxiety by taking them somewhere else, or reduce their breathlessness or their fatigue, that’s a win,” says Letizia Perna-Forrest, head of patient and family support at the Royal Trinity Hospice.


Virtual reality in end-of-life care isn’t only about the visual experience. It allows patients to think outside of their body, to overcome the physical limitations placed on them by their body.


These are all great examples of what virtual reality can do as a therapeutic tool right now. But as the technology evolves, even more sophisticated experiences will be possible. We are already able to live stream in virtual reality, something that will be a wonderful experience for hospice patients with far-away families. At the Royal Trinity Hospice, one lady is keen to use VR to allow her to visit her church. Shared virtual reality experiences are also on the cards, allowing patients to visit their bucket list locations with friends and loved ones together. For people who may feel isolated, such shared experiences will be a blessing.


Though we will have to wait a while before we can live forever in virtual reality, the tools to give value to our dying days are here. Whatever methods we can find to make people’s final weeks more pleasurable should be done at all costs, and VR may be an un-costly way to do this for many, many people.