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How Virtual Reality Helps Older Adults

The technology may help improve well-being and distract from pain


For older adults who cannot travel or attend family events, the real world can become very small and stifling. But they may be able to escape their isolation to a degree through virtual reality (a technology that generates visuals and sounds making users feel as if an artificial world is real) — and a number of entrepreneurs are developing programs to make that possible.

Rendever is a company that specializes in creating virtual reality (or VR) for older adults by using algorithms that convert 360 panoramic photos.

“We’re aggregating tons of wonderful content, like beach scenes,” says Dennis Lally, CEO of the company. “They can go to a Maui beach and watch the waves come in for 30 minutes, or swim with a whale in the ocean. They could sit in the front row of a concert that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend. We also provide educational stuff, like historical tours or architectural exhibits.”

Missing Out on Memories

But the most important thing is for families to connect with their loved ones, Lally says.

When he went away to college, Lally tried to stay in contact with his beloved grandmother. He knew his phone calls meant so much to her, since she was confined to her home. But he noticed that she struggled to stay focused on the present. Her world was slipping away from her. “The thought of being able to actually see her, or for her to be a part of my life, is really important to me,” he says.

Immersing patients in virtual reality may stimulate the brain ... or serve as a distraction from confusion or pain, studies suggest.

Rendever co-founder and COO Reed Hayes had similar experiences with family members who were residents of assisted living communities and memory care units. “Every time I went there, no one really had a smile on their faces. It was quite depressing, and it made it seem like the aging process was pretty scary,” he says. Years later, he visited his mother-in-law in an elder care community. Her diminished quality of life as a result of dementia touched him deeply.

“It affected the whole family,” says Hayes. “She wasn’t able to go out or do the things she loved to do. It caused her to miss some important life moments.”

A World at Their Doorstep

Lally and Hayes met as MIT graduate students. During one conversation, they got onto the subject of their older loved ones. “We thought we could do something by leveraging some new technologies like virtual reality to help stimulate the minds of these older folks,” says Hayes.

“I was on board pretty quickly,” says Lally. “My background is in health care, and I have always had a passion [for that]. I actually thought of going into practicing medicine, but when I met Reed, this idea sort of bubbled to the top.”

Created in 2015, Rendever offers a subscription-based service to individuals and facilities to offer older adults immersive, engaging experiences through VR headsets.

Hayes recalls a recent visit to a facility in Massachusetts where an older woman put on the VR goggles. “She started telling us, ‘Oh, this is Yosemite Park!’ She told us about how, when she graduated college, she went there by herself to go camping. The only things she had were a tent and a .22, and she had to watch out for bears,” recalls Hayes,

Rendever can even capture a family event on a camera and then create a virtual reality experience of it for family members who could not attend. Lally plans to record his upcoming wedding in Greece and share it with his grandmother through virtual reality, so she can feel as though she is a part of the event.

Virtual Reality: A Distraction from Pain

The virtual reality technology may also have a physically therapeutic effect.

Immersing patients in virtual reality may stimulate the brain and reactivate some neuropathways by taking away other distractions — or serve as a distraction from confusion or pain, studies suggest.

University of Washington research scientist Hunter Hoffman and psychology professor David R. Patterson have used immersion VR for pain control in burn patients of all ages. Developed in 1996, the virtual reality game SnowWorld takes individuals through a simulated ice canyon where participants throw snowballs at each other as a distraction from their pain. The project, at the University of Washington HITLab in collaboration with Harborview Burn Center, was the first immersive virtual world designed for reducing pain.

Brooke Army Medical Center Institutes of Surgical Research is examining the use of VR as a pain distraction for wounded soldiers.

Therapy for Dementia Patients

Dr. Sonya Kim, founder and CEO of One Caring Team in California, realized there was a link between the isolation of older adults and the diminished quality of life. She developed the One Caring Team organization to address the issues and needs of older adults by building relationships, connecting through phone calls, and offering support to caregivers.

Kim was giving a talk about one of her programs at an assisted living facility, when a man asked her if she had a solution for his mother, who had dementia.

“Because of her dementia, she could not participate in our care call program,” Kim says. “Lars asked me if there was any way we could help his mom be happy again, as she didn’t want to watch TV anymore. So, I began my research and discovered VR technology. I decided to test it with some of my own private patients and saw amazing results.”

Their own program, called Aloha VR, is “designed to engage with seniors with various unmet psychosocial needs,” Kim says. “Aloha VR has helped many of our patients feel reconnected to life. Some of the most challenging dementia patients … have benefited from our program.”

Going Back Home

Sometimes, the most comforting experience is simply going home again, virtually speaking. Lally and Hayes were able to use their technology to take one patient back to her longtime home — recreating the streets, the surroundings and the house itself.

“I’ve never seen technology get this type of reaction,” says Hayes. “Immediately she had this sensation, this comfort. She said, ‘This is the most beautiful place in the world.’ It gave her that small window of comfort, and when you work with dementia patients you know how rare those moments can be.”

By Rosie Wolf Williams
Rosie Wolf Williams is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in USA Weekend, Woman's Day, AARP the Magazine and elsewhere.@alwaysrosie

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