How Virtual Reality Is Keeping Seniors Entertained and Engaged During the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated physical distancing protocols in senior care communities to help keep residents and staff safe. While implementing these procedures has helped slow and prevent the virus’ spread, it has also resulted in another threat to residents’ wellbeing and survival: social isolation and loneliness.
The statistics are sobering:
- A 2015 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science found that long-term social isolation and loneliness resulted in health effects comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
- A 2016 study by Nicole Valtorta, PhD and epidemiologist at Newcastle University, found that loneliness increased one’s risk of having a stroke or developing coronary heart disease by 30%.
- A 2019 study by public health researcher Kassandra Alcaraz, PhD, MPH, found that social isolation increased study participants’ risk of early death, regardless of the participants’ race. In black participants, social isolation doubled the risk of premature death.
Senior living facilities traditionally provide a sense of community and a source of engagement and relationship-building opportunities. But implementing social distancing means that they need to find alternative ways to keep residents socially connected.
A Virtual Reality Solution
Kyle Rand, CEO and Cofounder of Rendever, has been working to solve the loneliness problem well before the pandemic began. Rand’s connection to the senior care industry began early; Rand and his friends volunteered each summer, scooping ice cream at an Upstate New York senior living community with an ice cream parlor. While attending Duke University, Rand studied cognitive decline in the aging population.
That connection became more personal when Rand’s grandmother was diagnosed with cancer for the second time. Rand explains that after his grandmother moved into a senior living community, she fell into “what we’re now identifying as a classic trap of social isolation.” Rand saw the effects that isolation had on his grandmother, as well as the stress that it placed on his family members.
The experience led Rand to research data on the effects of social isolation and chronic loneliness. “The data was just alarming,” says Rand, whose cofounders had similar experiences with family members who faced the harmful effects of loneliness. “At that time, virtual reality was just starting to enter the market. To us, it was the perfect opportunity to provide joy to this demographic who had an entire lifetime of experiences, but then they were suddenly limited in their access to the world,” says Rand. “We realized we could not only provide joy, but also create a platform that allowed people to enjoy those moments together. We could build and strengthen relationships.”
The result was Rendever. Founded in 2016, Rendever’s mission is to “overcome social isolation through the power of virtual reality and shared experiences.” To date, more than 200 senior living communities in the United States, Canada, and Australia use Rendever, delivering more than 750,000 experiences to residents to date.
Rendever is designed to be simple; staff members use a tablet to host each experience. Residents put on a VR headset and are immediately immersed in a synchronized, group session. The platform is full of prompts and guides to facilitate conversation among participants, and the massive library of experiences is extremely diverse. Sessions are fully immersive and include:
- Reminiscence therapy experiences where residents can revisit meaningful connections, like a childhood home or wedding location
- Inspiring experiences where residents can travel the world and complete bucket list activities
- Personal experiences where residents can view photos of their friends and family
Residents also have access to games, videos, guided activities, and much more.
Making a Difference During the Pandemic
Connections, including virtual ones, have proven essential and valuable during the pandemic. Reducing isolation during the pandemic could be a life-saving strategy. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reports that those aged 85 years and older with COVID-19 experience a 10 to 27% mortality rate in the United States. Conversely, a study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science found that social isolation could increase the chance of mortality by 32%. While social distancing is essential to preventing COVID-19 transmission within senior care communities, the loneliness that comes with this physical distancing is life-threatening, too.
The Rendever team started consulting with senior care communities during the pandemic’s onset to better understand staff’s unique challenges and needs. In response, Rand notes, they released several new major features. With group voice communication, residents can now converse with each other through the headsets. Whereas before the pandemic, residents often sat in rooms together while they enjoyed experiences, now they can be in entirely different rooms while still maintaining that critical social experience.
Caregiving staff are busier than ever, so RendeverLive™ was designed to give staff a reprieve. With RendeverLive™, any community using the software can have residents participate in full-service virtual reality sessions hosted by Rendever. These twice-a-week sessions save staff time planning and hosting the experiences, while also keeping residents connected with the broader Rendever network.
While virtual reality helps to alleviate loneliness, much of the relationship-building value took part after Rendever experiences. “The magic really happens the moment you take the headset off,” explains Rand. “You’ve just had this great experience with other residents. You’ve laughed together and smiled together. That authentic conversation has been building, so when you take the headset off and go to dinner together and talk, that’s where the relationship starts to evolve.”
While physical distancing prevents those in-person conversations, Rendever’s new Connection Corner helps to facilitate them – slightly differently. Now, each user can personalize their own look-alike avatar in virtual reality. After a session ends, residents go into a comfortable community room where they can see each other’s avatars and talk, continuing that important conversation and relationship building.
With the pandemic anticipated to last well into 2021, virtual reality is poised to help residents engage socially, and senior care facility staff and owners recognize that. “I think the best part of my job is we hear from our community partners pretty much on a daily basis. They contact us to go over a magical moment they’ve just had with a resident that they can’t wait to share, or when they’re excited about a new experience we’ve launched, or just to say they love the system,” says Rand. “From an industry perspective, with all the negativity around the pandemic, the fact that our platform can be a spot of light day in and day out is magnificent.”
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