VR is going after the Baby Boomer market and it’s worth taking a look.
Move over, millennials. Virtual reality (VR) is working its way into senior care facilities nationwide. Using technology developed by Rendever, senior adults can travel the world. From a piazza in Rome to the house left behind, technology is allowing older adults to access parts of the globe they’ve never seen, or never thought they’d see again.
As highlighted in the sidebar, VR headsets and experiences vary with cost. You may be wondering how VR differs from a panoramic movie or 3D movie experience. Sensors in higher-end virtual reality headsets (such as those used by Rendever) track your head and eye movements, allowing you to interact with and navigate through different environments as though you were actually there. You become more of a participant than a spectator.
Rendever Targets Senior Communities
“We’re using VR as a mechanism to enhance life,” says Dennis Lally, the CEO and co-founder of Rendever, a company that creates virtual reality for older adults by converting 360-degree panoramic photographs to simulate a 3D environment. “Sensory stimulation is important, and VR creates a sense of wonder for the world again.”
Rendever was developed to provide cognitive therapy and track movement data to aid in early diagnosis of dementia. The company, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) startup, won a $25,000 grand prize at the 2017 MIT Sloan Healthcare Innovations competition for its work using virtual reality for a new population: seniors.
“We’re using virtual reality to improve the way we age, so you don’t become isolated, don’t become depressed, and you can keep your mind happy and healthy,” says Lally, who launched the startup with classmate Reed Hayes.
Feedback from their initial work encouraged the pair. “After seeing an 88-year-old woman laugh and cry tears of joy when we put her in the headset,” says Lally, “I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
Keeping Seniors in Touch with Their Families
But perhaps the most important function of VR is to connect families with their loved ones, Lally says.
How Much Does VR Cost?
Senior care facilities can take advantage of some VR companies’ subscription services, but how much does a private individual need to set aside to purchase a VR device? Senior Spirit takes you through some of the most common options, from the priciest to the least expensive, priced on Amazon.
He should know. Lally is close to his grandmother, who is confined to her home. When he left for college, he called her regularly. But he realized that she was having a hard time focusing on the present with no visual interaction.
Today, Rendever can record a family event digitally and create a virtual experience for members who are unable to attend. Lally will share his wedding in Greece with his grandmother, who can feel like she was present at the event.
Drawing Parallels from Similar Research
Although there’s been a lot of recent research in VR, little has been geared toward older adults. But findings from related studies can help predict the impact of virtual reality on seniors. For instance, researchers know that when Alzheimer’s and dementia patients listen to music from their youth, it jogs their memory.
A Stanford University study revealed that VR simulations directly influenced how people behaved in the real world, even after the headsets were removed. And UCLA neuroscientists discovered that a different part of the brain is engaged when responding to virtual reality versus the real world, raising more questions about how VR might affect memory.
VR Films for Seniors Only
"Everyone talks about VR as a millennial thing," says Jake Kahana, a New York-based designer and film director. "But seniors are the fastest-growing segment of the population, and there really weren't that many people looking at how this could work for them."
Kahana’s difficulties communicating with his grandmother pushed him to develop BettVR With Age, a series of films he created after extensive field work talking to seniors about what they wanted from a VR experience. To his surprise, it wasn’t the sweeping grandeur he was used to shooting. The older Americans he spoke with missed simple, everyday activities they could no longer manage: museums, concerts and tours.
With headsets and phones donated by Samsung and software by Rendever (see above), Kahana directed 10 films. In one, viewers listen while a violin duo plays for friends in an apartment. Another features a tour and concert at a Lower East Side museum.
The simple, evocative films will be donated to DOROT, an organization for progressive social change, to use for senior programming.
They’re already making an impact on Craig Palmer, a 78-year-old confined to his apartment for the last four years. A former singer and performer on Broadway, Palmer spends his days in a wheelchair, watching soccer games and listening to showtunes.
After experiencing Kahana’s films, Palmer asked for more. Kahana sent him to Amsterdam with Google Maps’ VR app. “I was on that canal,” Palmer said. “It doesn’t smell!” Palmer’s next stop: London. “That place had the most horrible bacon you’ve ever had,” he remembered. Then, “Oh, is that the Thames? I fell into that once. Accidentally, after a party.”
Finally, Palmer’s virtual reality experience finished. Kahuna gently removed his headset and asked him how he felt. “It was awesome,” Palmer said. “But it would be better if I had a scotch and a cigarette.”
Dementia Patients Benefit from Virtual Reality
Aloha VR is “designed to engage with seniors with various unmet psychosocial needs,” says Dr. Sonya Kim, founder and CEO of One Caring Team. She developed the organization to help seniors build relationships and give caregivers support through phone calls.
But while she was giving a talk at an assisted living facility, a man asked what he could do to help his mother, who had dementia and couldn’t participate in a call program. Kim researched options and discovered VR technology. She tested it on some of her own patients and saw amazing results.
"There are over 100 clinical research papers that are already published that show proven positive clinical outcomes using VR in managing chronic pain, anxiety and depression," Kim says. "And in dementia patients, all those three elements are very common."
Dubbed Aloha VR, Kim’s virtual reality software pairs beach scenes with music, brief text and an introduction. During group sessions at Bay Area senior living centers, the feedback has been positive. Even seniors who struggle with verbal communication blow kisses, hum contentedly or go to sleep while wearing the headsets. One client kept the headset on for 40 minutes, asking again and again for “Just a little more, hon.”
“Aloha VR has helped many of our patients feel reconnected to life,” Kim says. “Some of the most challenging dementia patients … have benefited from our program.”
Patients who are unhappy in life have found a VR session “allows them to forget their chronic pain, anxiety, the fact that they are alone,” Kim says. It’s “a new care modality to bring to a senior care setting like this, to inspire them to live another day where they’re happy.”
“About Rendever,” Rendever.
“For Senior Citizens, the Future of VR Lies in the Past,” Mary Pilon, April 2017, Wired.
“Seniors Welcome New, Battery-Powered Friends,” New York Times.
“How Virtual Reality Helps Older Adults,” Next Avenue.
“Can a virtual reality game make you forget you’re in pain?,” The Conversation US, Inc.
“Meet the Team: Dennis Lally,” Rendever.
“Impaired spatial selectivity and intact phase precession in two-dimensional virtual reality,” Nature Neuroscience.
Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors