Nursing home residents go high tech when ‘working out’

Friday, October 23, 2020
TOP: Owen Beneda plays a game of volleyball on the virtual reality equipment at Hillcrest with occupational therapist, Mariah Pierson. ABOVE RIGHT: Physical therapist assistant Taryn Arterburn works on balance and standing tolerance with patient, Cathy Lubben. ABOVE LEFT: Using the omnicycle is Dave Ashley with occupational therapist, Valerie Loop
Courtesy photos

McCOOK, Neb. — Virtual reality games are not just for kids anymore.

Since the beginning of October, Hillcrest Nursing Home residents are using new, simulated reality machines to help with speech, occupational and physical therapy. With the assistance and supervision of therapists from Southwest Nebraska Physical Therapy and Community Hospital, residents are using the leased equipment in a variety of ways to regain strength, mobility, endurance and memory.

“The residents are loving it,” said Kim Herrman, a restorative aide at Hillcrest who helps residents retain their life skills. “They seem to be more willing to participate and it’s more fun for them than the hum-drum things we’ve been doing for years.”

Specialized software captures the patient’s movements and gives therapists biofeedback as they interact in a virtual, game-like world. But unlike off-the-shelf video game systems, this virtual reality program has been developed specifically for people with physical limitations and is easy for older adults to use, said Jeff Tjaarda, clinical program consultant with the equipment. The graphics are less complicated and there are no special platforms or hand controllers needed. Instead of a “win-lose” approach, that can be discouraging for people who are trying to overcome physical challenges, it gives positive reinforcement, he said.

Sensors pick up the resident’s movements on a television monitor, as they virtually engage in a variety of activities such as playing volleyball, walking in a park and trying to avoid bananas on the ground or stopping at red lights. Other activities include putting a puzzle together or matching items by using their arms or trunk to lean toward the needed piece of the puzzle or matched item.

The system focuses on professional therapy exercises, selected for the individual’s specific condition or physical challenge. And it’s being used in large and small ways, such as after strokes, hip and knee replacements, memory loss/care, for neuro-muscular conditions, such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinsons, even for helping a patient learn how to swallow again by using virtual reality biofeedback.

The high-tech equipment is unique in the area, said Hillcrest administrator, James Foster. Although the machines have been in use for barely a month, Foster said he’s already seen a change in residents. “They’re really excited about going and are invested in their therapy much more,” Foster said.

Therapists especially like the machines for several reasons, especially for the interactive biofeedback technology. “The patients and therapy staff love the new equipment,” said Valerie Loop, occupational therapist at Community Hospital. “The machines give us objective data with each exercise/activity completed, so it’s a great tool for the therapists to track the patient’s progress.” She said a favorite among patients is the bingo game, where patients work on sit-to-stand reps as they compete for a win at bingo.

Another piece of equipment helps patients learn balance control when doing certain activities. “Many of our patients have a fear of falling, so being able to stand in this machine and feel safe while doing activities that are challenging them is great,” said Taryn Arterburn, physical therapy assistant with Southwest Nebraska Physical Therapy.

Perhaps the greatest endorsement comes from the residents themselves. Cathy Lubben uses the virtual reality equipment to recover from a hip fracture.

“The new machines are great!” Lubben said.“They challenge the muscles and posture and make you reach farther and stand up straighter. You come off of them feeling tired and refreshed at the same time.”

It’s a win-win for therapists and residents alike, said Dave Carfield, physical therapist with Southwest Nebraska Physical Therapy. “I applaud Hillcrest for providing the staff and its residents this cutting edge equipment,” Carfield said. “It will push our residents further than we have been able to but still keep them safe from injuring themselves.”

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