How Virtual Reality Brings Real Benefits to Senior Living

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Owners of virtual reality headsets know the drill—as soon as you start using the technology in front of other people, it won’t be long before someone else demands a turn. Now, that same scenario is playing out in senior housing communities across the country.

That’s due in part to Rendever Health, a startup begun by a duo of graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management.

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Since its inception, the company’s virtual reality subscription service has been praised by Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) and adopted by other senior housing providers across the country, co-founder Dennis Lally tells Senior Housing News.

Other senior living communities, meanwhile, have warmed to virtual reality technology without the help of a third-party vendor. That’s the case at Morning Pointe of Columbia, a 42-apartment assisted living and memory care community in Columbia, Tennessee. Virtual reality has been especially popular in community’s 18-apartment memory care wing, The Lantern—a fact that took Lantern Program Director Britney Hill by surprise.

“It was actually just a fluke,” Hill tells SHN of Morning Pointe’s new virtual reality program. “My husband had gotten the virtual reality goggles, and we brought them in the first time just to try them.”

No matter how communities arrive at virtual reality adoption, the benefits for residents—and the communities themselves—are numerous.

Canoeing in Arizona, walking in Boston

Seniors of all cognitive abilities enjoy virtual reality experiences, Hill and Lally agree. In fact, Morning Pointe of Columbia has seen the most interest in the programming from its memory care residents.

“Just because they are in a secured environment doesn’t mean they don’t have an interest in traveling and experiencing new things,” Morning Pointe of Columbia Executive Director Tyler Sneed says. The community primarily downloads free virtual reality apps for residents to use on a Samsung Gear VR headset.

Rendever, on the other hand, works with several partners that create content for Samsung Gear VR headsets, Lally says. The startup also creates its own virtual reality content, which helps mitigate any potential complications that could arise from seniors’ use of the headsets.

“Virtual reality content can cause motion sickness pretty easily if you don’t do it correctly,” Lally explains. In sourcing their own content, Rendever helps avoid any potential for queasy residents.

Some of the experiences residents can have using Rendever technology include riding a canoe in the Grand Canyon, sitting in the front row at a concert, taking a historical walking tour through Boston and exploring the U.S. National Parks. Residents can also play immersive, interactive games using the headsets, or visit any location in the world using Google Street View.

Sometimes, residents opt to visit memorable locations from their past, like their childhood home or their college town.

“There’s a profound reaction from that,” Lally says.

Activity directors use tablets to control the virtual reality headsets, so residents don’t have to worry about whether they’re doing it right. Rendever has also enabled a “group sync functionality,” so groups of residents can take part in the same virtual reality experience together.

“People can share in these experiences, sparking conversations and creating bonds,” Lally explains. The company declined to disclose the pricing for its subscription service.

At Morning Pointe, virtual reality is even more of an immersive experience. When residents use the headset to “visit” Venice, for instance, the community will plan to have Italian fare for lunch.

“Not only are they seeing the sights, they’re also smelling the Italian food cooking in the comunity as well,” Sneed says.

Bringing residents on board

Overall, communities’ responses to virtual reality have been “super positive thus far,” Lally says. Still, bringing virtual reality into senior living isn’t always smooth sailing—especially when residents require a certain level of convincing to test the technology in the first place.

“I think the challenge that we most commonly face is the concern that there’s an unwillingness from the resident to actually use the product,” Lally explains. Sneed has noticed a similar initial hesitancy among residents at Morning Pointe.

“I guess that’s been the biggest challenge, going to someone with a clunky headset and tell them they’re going to Italy,” he says.

For the most part, though, residents’ reluctance to try virtual reality is quickly overcome once they see other residents having fun with it, Lally and Sneed agree. It also helps that the general public is becoming more familiar with the headsets, Lally explains.

Residents’ family members—or even residents themselves—are more likely than ever before to at least have heard of virtual reality, for instance.

“There was one [television] commercial with an older gentleman using a virtual reality headset that ran during the holidays,” Lally says. “Public awareness like that is always helpful.”

It’s wrong to assume that senior living residents are unwilling or unable to use the latest technologies, Sneed concludes.

“Any of the technology that we’ve put in front of our residents, they’ve been excited to learn about,” he says. “Not only virtual reality!”

Written by Mary Kate Nelson

Photo: ‘Samsung Gear 360 and Gear VR headset‘ by Maurizio Pesce, CC BY 2.0

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