MIAMI, United States — Nidia Silva had never realized her dream of swimming with dolphins until a Miami NGO gave her a pair of virtual reality (VR) glasses as part of an experimental treatment for depression and isolation among senior citizens.
“You’re in a world you don’t know, but it’s very beautiful and very important for me to see,” 78-year-old Silva said after taking off the VR goggles.
She was sitting in Domino Park in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. It’s a popular spot for Cuban residents — especially older ones — to meet daily and play dominoes.
“I’m very excited,” said Silva, who felt like she had been swimming in the water around Cuba, from which she emigrated 19 years ago.
Around her, the clacking of dominoes and lively conversations sounded loud in Florida’s dense, sticky heat, but she paid it no mind.
Less accustomed to the climate was Alexandra Ivanovitch, who offered Silva the chance to try the VR goggles.
Ivanovitch, who is French, was giving a VR demonstration to Cuban retirees, transporting them to the Malecon in Havana, to outer space, to the ocean floor or the tops of mountains.
Her project, called “VR Genie,” is designed to counteract the “loneliness and social isolation” that often affects the elderly, especially those who live alone or in nursing homes where there are few activities.
“We use virtual reality to fulfill seniors’ wishes,” said Ivanovitch, a digital humanities doctor.
Through VR, seniors can go places they’ve never been and check destinations off their bucket lists.
VR Genie, which is run by the nonprofit organization Equality Lab, is funded by Miami-Dade County. The goal is to provide nursing homes with VR helmets as soon as Ivanovitch, 35, compiles a more extensive “dream library.”
“We are really trying to reconnect them with the world,” she said.
Many of the seniors she works with are no longer physically or financially able to travel on their own.
“Basically, we bring the world to them,” she said.
With her goggles still on, Silva moved her hand gently through the air, caressing non-existent dolphins.