Virtual Reality Allows Seniors to Experience a Whole New World Right at Their Fingertips

For the last four years, virtual reality (VR) has been a booming industry with tons of untapped potential. While it started as a medium primarily meant for video games, its benefits have far exceeded that original purpose. In fact, hospitals now use VR to train surgeons, architects design buildings with it and even some directors are creating their films with the technology. 

How does this relate to seniors? According to Grace Andruszkiewicz, Director of Marketing & Partnerships for Rendever, VR can be an outlet for seniors to socialize and engage in activities they perhaps haven’t been able to do in years due to the aging process. The company she’s a part of offers VR programming for senior living communities in more than 30 states with the intent to help independent living, assisted living and memory care residents relive, reconnect and re-inspire. 

Andruszkiewicz referenced a study discussed during a National Institute for Health Care Management panel that noted loneliness can be as damaging to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. That’s where VR can help. 

How to Get Started in VR 

While no computer is necessary for a VR experience, special headsets such as Oculus Go and Gear VR are required. These can be purchased individually at many big-box stores or electronics retailers. Rendever’s package is only available at an enterprise level right now. Oculus Go and Gear VR are two of the most affordable and user-friendly VR headsets on the market. 

Oculus Go is a standalone headset, so seniors simply slide it on and they’re immediately ready to get started. No wires, computers or any external devices at all are necessary. 

Gear VR requires a Samsung Galaxy smartphone to function. The phone plugs directly into the front of the Gear VR headset, then functions virtually the same as Oculus Go. 

VR Applications Ideal for Seniors 

From traveling around the world to exercising without even realizing it, these VR applications can be used by seniors and their loved ones to bring joy, provide a workout, allow an unplanned visit to another country or simply bond.

  • Zen Zone: Available for Oculus Go and Gear VR, Zen Zone offers three relaxation experiences that will guide a senior through a variety of meditation techniques. The third experience puts them in the middle of their very own Zen garden and allows them to rake sand, rearrange rocks and just sit back and relax in peaceful surroundings. This experience gives seniors a sense of peace and allows them to escape their everyday environment in a way they may not be able to do on a regular basis. If you’re a senior and you start to feel a little restless, simply slide on your headset and transport yourself to a world of endless tranquility with Zen Zone. 
  • Appility: Appility is available on Oculus Go, Gear VR and Google Cardboard, making it the perfect way to test out VR at an ultra-low cost before deciding to invest in a high-end headset. With Google Cardboard, seniors are sent a sheet of cardboard and lenses with instructions on how to fold them together into a headset. After a few minutes of construction, seniors can simply slide in their smart phone and immerse themselves in a virtual world. The app itself is a series of 360° videos designed to showcase the obstacles of people with disabilities, both mobile and visual, making it the perfect experience for the adult children and grandchildren to get a first-hand glimpse into what experiences their senior loved ones are struggling with every day. This can lead to an enhanced sense of understanding and, in turn, improve the everyday life of their senior. 
  • Alcove: Alcove, exclusively on Oculus Go, is a social experience designed with families in mind. This app allows seniors to meet up with their family members in a virtual space so they can chat as they would in real life. As long as all family members have headsets, seniors can pop into a virtual world to share memories, play games, go on an adventure and even sit back and watch TV.   
  • Wander: Seniors with limited mobility may find it difficult to take a family vacation or simply travel the world to see the sights they’ve spent their entire lives dreaming about. Wander can help solve that wanderlust. This experience is available for Oculus Go and Gear VR and transports seniors nearly anywhere in the world they want to go. Not only that, certain locations allow seniors to jump through different points of history and witness how the area has changed. 
  • National Geographic: Aging does not mean traveling around the world is over. The National Geographic VR app, available for Oculus Go and Gear VR, is a curated selection of exciting and immersive 360° videos. While some experiences such as Wander enable seniors to take a more passive view of the world, National Geographic VR puts them right in the middle of the action, whether it’s swimming with sharks, observing a family of gorillas or learning about other cultures. 
  • Rendever: More than an experience, Rendever is an entire service dedicated solely to improving the lives of senior citizens through the use of VR. The company partners directly with senior living communities to provide them with the necessary hardware and training so their residents can take part in their experiences. Rendever focuses on alleviating the effects of loneliness by offering their sessions in a group setting with all of the headsets being networked. This way, residents can experience everything simultaneously and speak about what they’re seeing as it happens, which creates a sense of community and bonding.

Benefits of VR

Andruszkiewicz said VR gives residents a reason to leave their apartments and build relationships with their neighbors. It can also help seniors dealing with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of memory loss. She says the team at Rendever has found that Alzheimer’s patients may struggle with short-term memory but that long-term memory is typically still very good. So, when seniors put a VR headset on and see a familiar place, their mind opens up and allows them to tell stories of their past, which can then be captured by loved ones and showcased in a book or video. 

While Andruszkiewicz talks about VR, she tells the story of a woman named Mickey, who upon moving into Assisted Living, was one of the most positive and outgoing residents in the community. However, she soon began to experience the effects of dementia, with one of the first symptoms being expressive aphasia. As a result, Mickey lost her ability to communicate and transitioned into memory care. One day, Mickey was given a VR headset and transported into a virtual room filled with golden retriever puppies. Almost immediately, her face lit up and her personality came shining through. Best of all, Andruszkiewicz says, she finally found herself communicating how she felt to her caregivers. 

Rendever checked in with the community six months later and Mickey was still communicating thanks to her continued experiences with VR. 

Rendever’s experiences allow seniors to visit many of the world’s most famous attractions. Always wanted to see the Eiffel Tower? Take a group VR field trip to Paris and gaze upon its world-renowned beauty. VR can also get residents to exercise without even realizing they’re doing it. Rendever’s Balloon Popper is an app developed for this purpose. Seniors attempt to poke virtual balloons with their noses to get the highest score. 

For family events, Rendever allows adult children and grandchildren to upload their own 360° photos and videos so a senior can live or relive a wedding, graduation, reunion or any big gathering of cousins, kids, grandkids, aunts, uncles, etc. 

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