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Baby boomers may find comfort grieving in a virtual reality world

The hands of an older woman tapping laptop keys

Older people struggling to overcome the death of their spouse have been using avatars to represent themselves in bereavement groups held in virtual reality locations.

Researchers at the University of Arizona have been exploring how virtual reality could enable bereaved people to share their feelings, from the comfort of their living rooms.

Support groups can be a helpful resource for those dealing with grief, but researchers at the university were concerned that for some older men and women, their geographic location or physical immobility could make it difficult to attend bereavement sessions in person.

As part of their study, the scientists used Second Life – a virtual reality website where visitors immerse themselves in imaginary worlds – to create a virtual beachside cabin.

Then they invited three to six widows and widowers at a time, to log into the private area they had created on the website. Here, they were able to connect with other people coping with symptoms of grief and also have regular sessions with a mental health professional.

All the people who took part in the eight-week long experiment were aged 50 and over and had lost a spouse or partner in the last one to three years.

They each chose avatars —animated figures — to represent themselves in the virtual meeting space. Then, from the comfort of their own homes, they communicated with one another, by typing what they had to say into a chat program.

Clinical psychology grad student Lindsey Knowles and the university’s assistant professor of psychology, Mary Frances-O'Connor, wanted to test how accessible virtual spaces could benefit older adults who have lost a spouse.

The participants ‘met’ at the virtual cabin for an hourly talking session every week, and also also took part in a weekly grief education session led by Mary.

In follow-up assessments, people in the virtual reality group said they felt as if they were in a real room during the sessions, with real people who were going through similar experiences.

Portrait of Lindsey Knowles

Lindsey, pictured left, who moderated the group discussions, said that ‘speaking’ through an avatar had helped some participants to open up.

She revealed how one group member had said: “Right now I'm crying at my keyboard, and I would never do this in person, but because I feel like there's this anonymity, I can break down, while my avatar looks perfectly fine.”

As part of the study, members of another group of people were assigned to visit a grief education website and read an informative written post, every week.

In follow-up assessments, the researchers found that people in both groups had shown improvements from symptoms of grief including stress, loneliness and sleep quality. However, only the participants in the virtual reality group had reported improvement in the depression they were suffering.

The researchers think the social support provided by the group, along with its interactive nature, helped with the depression caused by grief.

Lindsey Knowles explained: “One of the best treatments for depression is behavioral activation.

“Showing up for a group twice a week — even if it is virtual — is a way for them to engage in the world, that they haven't been.”

It's estimated that half of women in the U.S. aged 65 and over are widows, while one-sixth of men of the same age have lost their spouses.

“We expect that more people are going to be widowed as baby boomers age,” said Lindsey.

“Losing a spouse is a huge life transition and a profoundly stressful event. All of us will experience different types of grief in our lives, and having accessible resources that are evidence-based is really important.”

The full findings will be published in scientific journal Computers in Human Behavior.

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