Providers Use Flight Simulator to Re-Launch Resident Engagement

While consumer electronics manufacturers have had their eye on America’s aging population for several years, one evolving technology remains relatively new to the senior living scene: virtual reality flight simulators.

But for nearly a year, a Washington independent and assisted living community has been using the technology to give veterans and former pilots the chance to fly again.

The Harbour Pointe Retirement and Assisted Living Community has been hosting airplane enthusiast Martin Buehler, 36, who takes a full-flight simulator to the community for two- to three-hour sessions every few months. The $2,000 home-made simulator — now complete with X-Plane 10 simulator software, an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, an ejection seat from an F106 Delta Dart, controls, petals, flight stick and, most recently, a 55-inch TV screen — gives residents the full experience of flying again.

“This is something different, innovative and technologically advanced, and just a really fun thing to try,” said Karen Mathews, program coordinator at Harbour Pointe. “It’s like nothing else we’ve had here before and I don’t think anybody else is offering this. … I’d like to see this go into a number of retirement homes and nursing facilities.”

So far Buehler, who serves as director of IT infrastructure at Emeritus Senior Living, has only taken the technology to Harbour Pointe and one Emeritus community in Federal Way, Wash., just north of Tacoma. Although he says taking the simulator to these communities was not something sponsored by Emeritus, he plans to recommend it to them as an activity after the company’s merger with Brookdale Senior Living, which was completed in late July.

“I recommend anyone to look into this type of technology — the whole virtual reality side of the activity was incredibly popular with residents,” Buehler says.

Using Buehler’s gear, residents can watch themselves fly a plane on the TV screen or can strap on a virtual reality headset and step into another world. The X-Plane 10 simulator lets them navigate airplanes through real locations and airports, using virtually the same controls as a real plane would have.

This immersive activity, Buehler says, offers senior living residents “all the stimulation in the world.”

“I think it’s a lot more mentally stimulating than just watching TV. It lets you drop right in the middle of all the action,” he says.

Harbour Pointe, which is located within 5 miles of a 780-acre Boeing plant in Everett, Wash., has about 110 residents, 45 to 50 of whom are veterans. About 10 residents are also experienced pilots.

While flying a plane again may potentially bring up bad memories, Buehler says he is sure to disarm any planes flown in X-Plane 10 or in War Thunder, a simulator game the residents sometimes play.

“We wanted to keep it a positive flying activity,” he says.

And while Buehler, his father-in-law and son are the ones who bring the technology to the senior living community, it’s often the residents teaching them how to fly the planes.

“In a way they are still the teachers,” Buehler says. “We set the activity up, but they are the ones telling us what they’d done or showing us what they could still do.”


Buehler’s simulator is also enjoyed by residents who have never flown a plane. They can either try flying for the first time or take part in one of the other virtual reality demos Buehler uses when he visits the community. With the simulator, they can go to outer space, dive under the ocean, ride roller coasters and even use Google maps to explore their old neighborhoods.

“It’s a great activity for those who can’t do things anymore but still want to,” Buehler says. “The whole experience gives them the ability to go places and do things maybe they aren’t able to do anymore.”

For senior living communities looking for a new way to entertain or engage their residents, a simulator might be one way to do so.

Written by Emily Study