The Longevity

Another View: Virtual Reality For Seniors

January 23, 2017 | Features

By Sally Abrahms

Beth Tetreault’s mother has always wanted to visit Sweden. Now, with limited eyesight and mobility, traveling is out of the question for the 92 year-old nursing home resident. And yet, one day last month, she did, indeed, take a trip to Stockholm via virtual reality (VR).

Donning a Samsung Gear VR headset that shows panoramic images produced with a 360-degree video camera—making the wearer feel like they are truly there and in the experience–she also “toured” Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon.

Staff use a tablet programmed with proprietary software and content that controls what the viewer sees. The technology can be personalized. Through Google Maps, that might be virtually visiting their childhood home or neighborhood where they raised their kids.

With a VR video camera, the sky’s the limit: an adult child or grandchild can video a wedding or family white water rafting trip so that Mom or Grandma back in long term care can feel included. Always wanted to explore the solar system on a rocket ship or miss attending symphony? Not a problem!

“After my mother tried VR, she was all smiles,” says Tetreault, a 54 year-old accountant. “There is so much she can’t do anymore and this technology gives her the opportunity to explore outside her room and the facility. It is very cool.”

Westview Health Care Center in Dayville, CT, where Tetreault’s mother lives, has just integrated VR into its therapeutic recreational programs. “VR brings residents to a very happy place,” says Therapeutic Recreation Director Louise Taylor. “Going back to old times evokes memories and even residents who are not verbal may say a few sentences.”

VR adventures are a great way to break up that same-old routine, she says, providing fresh conversation for residents with those around them.

Twenty-Somethings Tackle Aging

Bringing VR to seniors, including nursing home residents at Westview, is due to the ingenuity of two Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate students. Currently second year business school students, Reed Hayes, 29, and Dennis Lally, 28, formed the VR company Rendever in October, 2015.

Hayes had watched his grandmother, who had dementia, lead a monotonous life in long term care. He wished he could have changed that. He and Lally realized that VR technology could enrich the lives of isolated and lonely seniors, like Hayes’s grandmother, and help them to connect with caregivers, fellow residents and themselves. Over the M.I.T. bar, the idea for their company was born.

To scale up Rendever, the founders recruited other M.I.T. students around campus in engineering, computer science, business and design. (Only two employees are not affiliated with M.I.T.)

Lally and Hayes were also part of M.I.T.’s delta v accelerator from which they received invaluable resources. The Accelerator handpicked a mentor network and board of directors to guide the students through the process of creating Rendever.

Besides money–around $30,000 that helps pay student salaries, among other expenses—they’ve been given legal, fundraising, marketing and consulting advice as well as introductions to industry leaders and investors. They’ve invested $13,000 of their own money and received funds from outside investors.

“School is a full-time job and running a company is a full-time job but the culture at M.I.T. makes it possible to blend the two,” says Lally. Fortunately, the bulk of his schoolwork is group projects, many which focus on his product.

Rendever has tested and rejiggered its VR offering in more than 30 memory care, assisted living, nursing homes and senior centers. Lally and one of the designers even lived in a long term care facility for a week to get feedback from residents!

Last fall, the company started selling to assisted living and skilled nursing a package of VR headsets and a subscription to its software and content; there’s a support component, too. The cost is undisclosed but Lally says it’s “a few thousand up front and a few hundred a month.” (While Rendever is geared to long-term care, a few adult children have purchased it for their at-home parents.) By the end of the year, the company expects to be in hundreds more senior facilities.

VR Not Just for Teens

While the technology may be better associated with adolescents and gaming, VR has far weightier potential. These include:

  • Studying brain function and emotions. Rendever is partnering with Massachusetts General Hospital neurologist Bradford Dickerson
  • Determining if VR helps schizophrenics better cope with hallucinations and phobic people overcome their fears
  • Helping prosecute concentration camp guards. Auschwitz has been created in VR
  • Exploring if VR can mitigate loneliness and depression. Along with that, San Francisco Physician Sonya Kim uses VR headsets as therapy so older patients can relax, vary the day, and “travel.” Dr. Kim has started a VR company called One Caring Team.
  • Reducing pain. Doctors at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles use calming videos, such as a helicopter ride over Iceland, to distract patients during procedures
  • Seeing if VR can relieve anxiety. Rendever is working with New York-based Northwell Health

The New Reality for VR

Rendever’s young founders saw something in VR that could transform a senior’s confined life into adventure, remembrance and delight. “Dennis and I didn’t accept the status quo of aging and knew that we could build something that made that process less scary, more fun and ultimately, more fulfilling,” says Hayes. “We had a tall task ahead of us to deploy technology to a demographic that typically has tremendous reluctance to use it.”

In 2017, VR headsets expect to reap $660 million in sales revenue, a 42% jump in one year. Gartner and Bloomberg Intelligence predict that by 2020, VR devices will reach $21 billion. Rendever’s timing couldn’t be better.