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VR trial seeks to improve caregiver quality of life


For many caregivers, getting a chance to step away from a loved one to take a quick break can be a difficult – if not impossible — task. Couple that with the physical and emotional stress of providing care, and both patient and caregiver can become negatively impacted. For those caregivers providing care for loved ones at the end of life these challenges are magnified.

But one researcher at the Michigan State University College of Nursing is hoping a new study utilizing virtual reality can promote mental health and quality of life for such caregivers.

Natural environments are recognized to provide a healing sanctuary that people turn to for reflection and mental health restoration.  “Many caregivers cannot leave the home because they are caring for a loved one — often a spouse — so the idea of offering support that they could access at home was intriguing,” said Dr. Rebecca Lehto, an associate professor and a researcher in the college. “And since many of these caregivers are older and might have transportation or mobility issues, virtual reality offers them an opportunity to escape into ‘nature’ and to introduce calmness to their lives.”

The pilot study, which is currently recruiting participants, provides volunteers with a set of VR goggles that the caregiver wears for five days. The set comes with several soothing nature scenes to choose from, including the beach, forest or meadow. A special head band tracks the caregiver’s physiological data, including heart and breathing rates, to determine if the immersive experience helped calm the participant.

The College of Communications Arts and Sciences (CAS) and College of Engineering are partnering with the College of Nursing on the technology. In addition to Dr. Lehto, co-investigators include Dr. Gwen Wyatt from nursing, Dr. Gary Bente from CAS and Dr. Andrew Mason from the College of Engineering.  If all goes well in the pilot study, which should wrap up by the end of April, Lehto hopes to secure funding and approval to expand the project.

“While we focus on the patient in hospice care, family caregivers will require support, too,” Lehto said.

PhD candidate Mohammed Alanazi is assisting Lehto with her study implementation.

“While it is common to see virtual reality used in entertainment, this study could be a potential game-changer for health care,” Alanazi said. “We are starting to see more health care providers determine how we can apply this technology that was originally created for entertainment, to improving patient and caregiver health.”


Interested in participating in this study? Contact Dr. Rebecca Lehto at