Assisted living communities can be lonely places for the older adults living there. It’s hard to be separated from the neighborhoods and activities that defined people’s lives. With the advent of virtual reality technology, a company called Rendever is trying to take residents outside the confines of their facilities.
With the help of Samsung Gear VR headsets and a tablet, seniors travel the globe, swim with dolphins, skydive through the air or fly in the cockpit of a fighter jet.
More popular, though, they can visit their hometowns—by entering an address into Google Maps and selecting “street view.”
“We can take them back to places that are familiar to them…People just start automatically telling stories.”
“We can take them back to places that are familiar to them,” says Nick Abruzzo, the company’s director of business development. “People just start automatically telling stories: ‘My friends lived across the street,’ ‘Here’s where our kids used to try to sneak out of the house,’ ‘The Smiths lived two houses down,’ ‘The corner store is right down there.’”
Engagement and connection are two of Rendever’s goals because 43 percent of seniors experience social isolation, which is tied to medical problems such as stroke, hypertension, dementia and infections. Environments such as senior living communities go only so far in alleviating loneliness, says
The company was cofounded in 2016 by a neuroscientist named Kyle Rand, who noticed during his childhood experience as a volunteer at a senior living community that the typical activities – bingo, movies and gardening – weren’t particularly stimulating. He went on to study neuroscience and cognitive decline in the elderly.
He found through virtual reality technology, a solution that offers seniors a way to escape but also a way to connect with each other.
With Rendever, up to 10 residents per session can share the same virtual experience. Abruzzo likens it to walking down the street with a group and chatting as each person notices and points out different things.
The headsets are networked together and a session leader controls the headsets via an app, choosing a range of videos available on the tablet or online.
It’s in use at more than 100 senior living communities, health systems and hospice organizations in almost 40 states, Australia and Canada.
Rendever has more than 100 video experiences, along with a host of other interactive and guided trips, and releases new experiences twice per month. Favorites include golden retriever puppies being trained to be service dogs, a ski trip in the Rockies and a tour of a battleship. The company licenses videos from content creators and shoots some themselves. For example, through a partnership with UCHealth in Colorado, Rendever will add videos created during Denver Broncos games. And after the New England Patriots Super Bowl LII victory parade rolled through the streets of Boston in February, residents of Benchmark Senior Living used Rendever to feel like they were part of it.
One popular choice is a “family portal,” which has videos that residents’ loved ones shoot and submit to the session leader to upload to the app. For instance, Abruzzo said that if his ailing grandmother is unable to travel to his Labor Day weekend wedding, he can use a GoPro Fusion 360 camera to record the ceremony and upload it to the portal for her to watch.
A study the company did with Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab found that communities using Rendever have shown a 40 percent increase in resident happiness. It’s currently part of an ongoing study with Massachusetts General Hospital that looks at using VR as a distraction that can be an alternative to pharmacological sedation during colonoscopies.
Rendever is beta testing a direct-to-consumer product that will come out at the end of this year, Abruzzo says.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a Fairfax, Va.-based freelance writer, fitness instructor, mother and caregiver to her mother, who was diagnosed with dementia in 2012. Stephanie earned journalism degrees from the University of Florida (bachelor’s) and American University (master’s), and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Washington Post Express, Red Tricycle, the Washington Diplomat and the Kveller blog.