Friends, neighbors, and couples gathered around the cozy, light-filled dining room at the Westview Healthcare Center. Sipping on green smoothies, 40 residents waited for their weekly Virtual Reality session, thrilled that today’s session was a feature on Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Sipping on a smoothie in her wheelchair, Annie, a friendly woman who has been at Westview Center for 2 years, put on her goggles with the first group. Over the nine minutes of the video, we saw Annie’s face light up as she giggled at the ‘talented dancers’ in the Orpheus parade, her arms flinging out towards the beads thrown at her from a rowdy crowd, and her hand waving to the crowds as she rode atop a float down Bourbon street.
The residents around her laughed along as Annie turned from side to side waving her right hand. Her neighbor, a reserved man who is rarely seen speaking at the center, playfully turned and told me, through his chuckles: “Look at that – she’s on the parade in Mardi Gras and waving at the crazy crowds,” he said with a whimsical smile.
After the first group finished the video, Annie returned her goggles and placed her hand on top of mine as I kneeled down to her wheelchair.
“It was something else. Something happened to my body—it was beautiful” she said with an awe-struck smile and newly energized disposition. “I felt like I was on the float one minute and the next I was catching beads and hula hoops! I’ve never been to Mardi Gras, but I’ve seen flashes on my TV and always wondered what it was like. But this wasn’t a flash, I was there. It was amazing, amazing, amazing!”
At a table across the room, Bob and Martha were in the middle of their Mardi Gras experience, turning from side to side to take in the entire view of Bourbon Street. While waving and throwing out high-fives to the crowds in New Orleans, they unintentionally turned towards each other, giving each other a perfect, loud high-five.
“I can’t tell if that was real or not!” Bob yelled, sparking bounties of laughter throughout his table.
As more and more residents passed along the goggles to their neighbors, we saw everyone light up as many experienced Mardi Gras for the first time in their life. We saw men and women clapping with the crowds in Bourbon Street, waving and pointing at people from atop a parade float, and most of all, we saw them smiling.
As the residents filtered out of the room before dinner, we got to sit down with Debra, a fiery resident who secretly kept the goggles for a few viewings of the Mardi Gras experience while sipping her shake and wearing Mardi Gras beads around her neck.
“I have souvenirs from Mardi Gras from my family.” she said, listing the magnets and postcards her nephews and sister have brought her over the past few years.
“I’ve never been, and I always thought I would never get to go, but now I’ve seen it! I went to Mardi Gras!” she said in amazement.
Like Annie, Bob, Martha, and Debra, many residents at Westview Center entered the institution during a difficult, sudden shift in their life. Due to illness and old age, many arrived at the center losing a significant amount of their autonomy, loved ones, lifestyle, and for many, a loss of connection to the world and their past life. To address some of these challenging issues, we began our collaboration with Westview Center in 2016 when Louise, the spirited, well-loved recreational director of 12 years, reached out to us.
“I wanted them to connect to the world again,” Louise said. “Virtual reality gives them the opportunity to connect to people and to what’s going on in the world. Every week I see how energizing these experiences are for them, and it’s really amazing.”
At Rendever, we aim to build experiences and opportunities for senior citizen to relive, reconnect, and re-inspire. At Westview, we work with residents, staff, and family members to create meaningful, inspiring experiences. This week we worked with Phil who was visiting his mother at Westview, teaching him how to capture videos with a 360° camera to capture moments and memories on his trip to their homeland in northern Italy. Phil studiously took our toolkit, soaked in the demonstration, and at the end of the tutorial, gave us a big hug, thanking us for making it possible for his mother to see her childhood home.
“I’ve been visiting for years,” said Phil. “But I’ve never seen some of these people join conversations or laugh or even smile, and now they seem like a community. This is truly something special.”