Students Are Helping Seniors With Dementia By Using Virtual Reality

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As Reed Hayes was standing inside an assisted living facility in front of an older man struggling with dementia, he was not quite sure what to expect.

Students Are Helping Seniors With Dementia By Using Virtual Reality

As Reed Hayes was standing inside an assisted living facility in front of an older man struggling with dementia, he was not quite sure what to expect.


The man sat slouched in his wheelchair, with his eyes barely open. Hayes had enrolled in the Sloan School of Management of MIT with the idea of aiding older adults overcome depression and isolation through virtual reality. Now he needed to test his idea.


Hayes turned on a virtual reality experience that features a three-dimensional painting by Van Gogh and a classical piano playing in the background. He nervously placed the headset on the man. What followed stunned everybody in the room.


It wouldn't be the last time Hayes and Dennis Lally saw the transformative impact of virtual reality (VR). Their startup, Rendever, has brought its VR experiences to over 100 senior living communities ever since, and has launched in hospitals in order to extend the enthralling world of virtual reality to patients of all ages.


Rendever’s primary product is its resident engagement platform, that offers users a range of games and activities such as virtual scuba diving and hiking, and includes content from diverse sources which let users travel almost anywhere on Earth. One of the most significant features of the platform, however, is its ability to sync to many headsets at once, prompting social group activities.


The company, that uses off-the-shelf headsets, also offers a family engagement portal so relatives can upload personal content like pictures or videos that let users relive fond memories or be present in places they can’t physically be in. For instance, family members can borrow or purchase their own 360-degree camera to take to weddings or on family vacations.


The concept was first sketched out by Hayes on a napkin at a café as part of a pitch to Lally soon after they would come to MIT. With some help of two other MIT students, they launched the company back in 2016.


Since then, everyone in the company has racked up a series of unforgettable memories watching older adults use the platform. Lally remembers an early test when they gave an older woman the experience of seeing the Notre-Dame cathedral in France.


Rendever’s group adds original content to its platform twice a month, much of it based on feedback from residents at the communities which subscribe to the service. Subscriptions include a control tablet, a large content library, headsets, support, training, and warranties.


Furthermore, the company helps nursing homes deliver personalized content to their residents, which makes for some of the most powerful experiences.


Now the company is working on reproducing in clinical trials the results they’ve seen with individual clients.


A study conducted in conjunction with the MIT AgeLab compared social VR experiences for older adults with watching the same scenes on TV. The researchers discovered that the people that had shared these experiences through VR were notably less likely to report depression or social isolation but more likely to feel better about their overall well-being.


Factors like quality of life and mental stimulation have long been suspected to influence impairments related to aging. The team hopes the transformations they’ve seen can be replicated through peer-reviewed research. One particular transformation sticks with everyone.


For years, an older woman named Mickey was the most outgoing and friendly person in her Connecticut assisted living community. She knew everybody’s name, was a regular at community events, and always had a smile on her face.


She was diagnosed with dementia. One of the first symptoms was expressive aphasia, a disorder which robbed her of her ability to speak.


Rendever’s team then came in to do training. One staff member, with tears in his eyes, told the group about Mickey. Therefore, they cued up a scene of golden retriever puppies and put the headset on her.


From a clinical perspective, it is too early to say that VR improves symptoms related to aging. However, when Rendever followed up with the Connecticut community six months later, they learned something important: Mickey had continued using Rendever and communicating with old friends who never thought they’d hear from her again.


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Thinking Humanity: Students Are Helping Seniors With Dementia By Using Virtual Reality
Students Are Helping Seniors With Dementia By Using Virtual Reality
As Reed Hayes was standing inside an assisted living facility in front of an older man struggling with dementia, he was not quite sure what to expect.
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