LA CROSSE, Wis. — As Kathy Helgerson slipped the pair of MINDVR goggles over Rita Strauss' head, the reaction was instant.
"It looks like Midnight!" Strauss, 87, said with glee. "My tomcat."
It's moments like this that lead Helgerson, Strauss' daughter and founder of "Simple Steps to Technology" to say she has "the best job in the world."
"It is so powerful, I can't even tell you," Helgerson said, tears welling in her eyes at the spark of recognition from her mom, who has Alzheimer's. "It brings up those memories of the past. ... If you had asked my mom about (the cat) normally, she would have forgotten about it."
Two years ago, Helgerson made it her mission to infuse new energy and experiences into the lives of elderly individuals like her mother, connecting them with the excitement and technology of the modern world. Starting with Skype programs and smartphone tutorials, Helgerson has recently branched into virtual reality and wireless headphones, bringing top-of-the-line equipment into local assisted living facilities to enhance the residents' listening and viewing experiences, the La Crosse Tribune reported.
"This is a no-brainer," Helgerson said, distributing Eversound headphones to a group of seven seniors at Brookdale Assisted Living. "We'd make sure we had this technology for the next generation — ours — right? We aren't we doing this now? We need to be taking care of our seniors now."
While some residents have been reticent to accept the changes in technology, Helgerson has found most are open to giving the headphones and goggles a whirl, and some leave a session eager for her to return. The equipment, which Helgerson currently rents, is expensive, but she is hopeful senior facilities will access grants and donations to have the technology on site for continuous use.
The Eversound headsets, which come with microphones and wireless transmitters, can be adjusted to each user's preferred volume and boast an impressive range. The headphones can be worn over hearing aids, and the clear sound has gotten typically sedentary residents moving to the beat.
Streaming a list of golden oldies from her cellphone, Helgerson outfitted residents Bill, 91, and Frances, 89, with headsets and witnessed the response.
"Bum bum bum bum, Sandman..." Bill sang softly, tapping his foot. "I like the old-time music, oh yeah."
"This is the kind of music I like," agreed Frances, humming along. "I like that I listen to the sound in my ears, not what's going on in the room, 'cause it gets noisy in here."
Hearing the music in all its glory has even gotten some seniors up and shuffling, with Helgerson having discovered one woman, a former ballroom dance teacher, swaying about in her room.
"I joined her and she said, 'Kathy, you can't dance!'" Helgerson recalled with a laugh. "To see someone who doesn't (normally) walk get up and dance? That's rec therapy right there."
In addition to encouraging physical activity, the headphones have led many of the quieter individuals to join in conversations, no longer nodding along as they struggle to hear. Helgerson calls it an awakening of sorts, and is also excited about CaptionCall, a system that transcribes a caller's words in large text on a screen.
"People become isolated because of hearing loss," Helgerson said. "This helps them connect."
With many residents no longer able to travel, MINDVR has proven enthralling, allowing them to explore the streets of Paris, a rocket launch, and a tour of a World War I tank. Most popular, however, are the animal-centric visuals, with the drive-thru zoo and puppy playtime virtual realities bringing out big smiles.
"The residents love it," Brookdale executive program director Kelly Voegele said of the technology. "They have a lot of fun with it."
Helgerson is motivated to reach as many individuals as she can through Simple Steps to Technology, and hopes to get the community on board.
"We need advocates for our seniors," Helgerson said. "Let's do something for them."
An AP Member Exchange shared by the La Crosse Tribune.