When Peggy moved into assisted living a year ago, she thought her days of travel were over. Instead, she’s cavorted with penguins in the Antarctic, was wowed by the Northern Lights, and marveled at a Hawaiian volcano. It’s all been made possible by an innovative program at Regal Palms and Royal Palms in Largo, Florida.
Virtual Reality for Seniors
Because it’s such a new technology, many people think of Virtual Reality (VR) simply as an entertainment. However, The Goodman Group has partnered with the MIT-based start-up Rendever to use VR technology to help residents living in senior living communities restore a sense of wonder, exploration, and connectedness with the world and each other.
“As an organization, we’re always looking at innovative products that are coming into the market,” explains Katie, national director of life enrichment for The Goodman Group. When Rendever approached The Goodman Group to set up a pilot program, it seemed a natural fit.
“The pilot program started in January at Regal Palms, an assisted living community at The Palms of Largo,” notes Phyllis, national director of research and development for The Goodman Group. There are currently two groups at Regal Palms, where two of the participating residents are over 100 years old! The program has become so popular that there’s a waiting list. A third group has recently started at Royal Palms.
How The Program Works
A group of 8-10 residents gathers in a common room, like a library or exercise area, where they can be seated comfortably. A trained facilitator explains the program and the group decides together where they want to explore. There are many destinations to choose from — The Eiffel Tower, a Hawaiian beach, Niagara Falls, the South Pole, or the interior of a European palace are just a few examples.
The facilitator helps residents put on and adjust their headsets, then guides them through a 20-30 minute adventure. While the facilitator shares information about the destination and can respond to participants questions, the seniors themselves control their headsets by “looking around,” just as they might in person. It’s common to hear “ooohs” and “aaahs” as residents explore the location. Other residents will share experiences if they’ve traveled to that same destination in the past — creating a whole new awareness of each other’s life before moving to the community.
The VR program can also use Google Earth to travel to a specific location. “We observed a couple who went to Hawaii, to a home they lived in for 13 years,” Phyllis says. “They expressed so much excitement and joy.”
The Technical Stuff
The Rendever equipment is specially designed for seniors to be as easy as possible to use. A smartphone snaps into the headset, which does not use headphones or a hand-held controller as other VR units do. The facilitator adjusts the program so everyone is seeing the same thing and it’s in focus. Participants remain seated but are able to “move around” within the experience, simply by moving their heads.
The experiences themselves are extremely realistic. Katie shares an example. “One group went to Niagara Falls. One of the ladies kept moving her feet and saying her feet were getting wet.”
Another experience is simply of a cat jumping out of a box and onto the participant’s lap. “You can actually see residents petting the cat,” Katie says.
The Program’s Benefits for Seniors
Part of the program’s intent is to help residents connect with each other. As Phyllis explains it, “We want to look at its impact on connecting residents with each other and allowing them an opportunity to learn from and about each other.”
To measure the effects of the program, participants are asked to rate their sense of connectedness before and after their VR experience. The results have been extremely positive, as Phyllis points out. “One resident said they were very lonely before the virtual reality session. Afterward, they felt connected, even writing a comment that said, ‘I felt part of a group.’”
VR offers experiences for residents that they wouldn’t otherwise have, and that they very much want. “We’ve looked at isolation and loneliness of our residents and they’re saying they want to be connected" Phyllis explains. "They want people to know who they are. With VR, we can take them to places that are meaningful to them."
That creates an opportunity for residents to get to know each other better. “When we took that couple to Hawaii,” Phyllis says, “fellow residents began asking questions about their life when they lived there. It created an opportunity that wouldn’t have occurred without VR.”
An Enthusiastic VR Explorer
Peggy is a big fan of her VR experiences and the perfect spokeswoman for the program. “I think it’s incredible that The Goodman Group is introducing this experience to people at a time in their lives when the world has become limited due to physical or mental impairment. This opens up a world of experience. It is so realistic, so easy to do regardless of your situation. You can enjoy different parts of the world. I found myself clutching the arms of my chair so I wouldn’t fall in the water! It was wonderful. I cannot wait to do it again. I think it’s the most exciting thing we have here. I still don’t understand how it’s done. But I don’t need to understand it. I looked at people around the room and they were just as excited as I was.”
You can learn more about Rendever, meet the inspired developers behind it, and watch seniors’ delighted — and at times profound — reactions in this video.