Anne-Marie Widick reached out with her left arm, then her right arm, planting a pair of mountain axes one step ahead of her as she scaled a frozen peak in Antarctica.
The 68-year-old retiree made the climb sitting cross-legged in a Camarillo classroom. Beside her, a resident of the Village Loisirs rocks gently in a double-decker bus in the direction of the Eiffel Tower. An 81-year-old retired teacher paddled through arctic waters as a penguin jumped over her kayak.
The trips power a virtual reality travel class launched by the Camarillo Health Care District in October and designed to help participants, mostly seniors, combat isolation. In a series of four sessions that costs $20, participants don goggles and point lasers at a menu of adventures.
Click on a hot air balloon and they soar high above the Swiss Alps. Use Google Maps and they can be transported to the town where they were born.
Widick worked for 24 years in the customs department at Harbor Freight Tools in Camarillo and Agoura Hills. She flies to Atlanta every year to visit her sister, but rarely travels anywhere else and has never been to Antarctica or the nearly 2,000-year-old Colosseum in Rome or the grassy, tree-strewn plains. Kenyan zebras.
During a 90-minute class, she visited all three locations, squeezing in on a jaunt to the chandelier-studded Palace of Versailles in France.
“It’s so invigorating,” she said. “It’s the feeling of being there. You’re looking over that precipice, and it looks real.
The district’s virtual reality offerings also include nature hikes, scuba diving, and tai chi. Classes originated from Beat Saber, the virtual reality game where players smash with sabers on colorful obstacles that represent musical beats. District CEO Kara Ralston played it and was overwhelmed by the exhilaration she felt.
She used a virtual reality travel program to get to the edge of a canyon above the Colorado River. It was so real that his fear of heights kicked in.
Virtual reality, Ralston decided, could be used in district wellness programs as a way to overcome barriers that limit movement and increase isolation like immobility, health conditions, finances and COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s very exciting, and we need thrills in life,” she said. “People are isolated and they have different levels of depression. Life can get a little hopeless.
On a recent Tuesday, three elderly people sat several feet apart, outfitted in goggles and a pair of hand controls. The lesson series started a month ago with an introductory session focused on learning how to use the equipment. On this day, participants could travel wherever they wanted.
“Let me grab a mask and I’ll take you to Iceland,” quipped one of three district workers who lead the class and help participants with technology.
Another coach offered a travel tip to an elderly person visiting Machu Picchu in Peru.
“You will see llamas. Be careful because they will spit,” she said.
With a click of her remote, Joanne Davidson teleported from the Eiffel Tower to New South Wales, Australia, and the sail-like hulls of the Sydney Opera House. She is 86, a retired educator who was once principal of Hueneme High School.
Davidson is planning an actual trip to New Zealand, but fears his travel days may be limited. Virtual reality intrigues her in part because her grandson, a high school sophomore, uses the technology to play games.
“He wants to box and do all these things,” she said. “I just want to see things.”
She clicked the remote again and in an instant she was swimming with the fish of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
“I can almost touch the coral,” Davidson said.
A new series of virtual reality courses starts in January. For more information, visit the district’s website or call 805-388-1952, ext. 100.
Tom Kisken covers health care and other news for the Ventura County Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-437-0255.
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