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.”
Dementia impinges and intrudes upon the well being and quality of life of those who are afflicted; not only does it affect memory but it affects behavior and other senses resulting in a diminished sense of identity and causing individuals to withdraw from activities, family and friends.
Often times, drug intervention is the final destination for those with memory illness as practitioners attempt to calm difficult behaviors associated with decline; attempt to slow progression of symptoms while trying to maintain quality of life.
Finding the balance between drug and behavioral intervention is critical to mind and body, as they are responsive to the care we give them. Family members, caregivers, and clinicians, whether at home or at an assisted living community, play vital roles in creating an environment that is both nurturing and secure.
Activity programs, such as the one implemented at Neville Place Compass Memory Support Neighborhood, are meant to stimulate and engage. Activities revolving around social engagement, lifelong learning, and exercise improve and nourish the happiness, dignity and souls of our residents.
When creating an activity guide of your own, it is important to keep in mind that it should serve as a flexible outline of what the day could include. Structure is key however you should remain thoughtful of the residents moods and energies. Adjusting your activity plan becomes easier as you explore and experiment!
Here are 4 activities that best engage our residents:
Boom Boom Pow, A Game Of Combat.
Yes, thundersticks are used as noise makers for sporting events. However, these inflatable spirit bangers make incredible balloon lances for the game my ladies refer to as “Combat”. If I had to pick my favorite activity, this would be it. I first introduced this game after an expressive arts session; the gals were sitting around the table finishing artwork and puzzles when I made the switch. I gave them two sticks, one per hand, and put two round balloons in the center of the table. The explanation was simple: hit the ballon with the sticks. After starting, it was an easy pick up. A few of the residents were laughing while others became so focused on performing that they stood up to get a better advantage. Two of the residents even started playfully jabbing at one another. This is a game of no winners or losers, just a simple game of fun!
Don”t Step On My Blue Suede Shoes
Elvis was a shadow in the background of my life before I met the Compass residents. I uncovered an ambiguous Elvis CD under an overwhelming “greatest hits” and “best of” holiday and Elton John themed stack. Exhausted after the winter holiday “Jingle Bells” and “White Christmas”, I popped Elvis 75 into the player and pressed play. Rock ’n” roll music filled the room and my residents responded immediately. This captivating vocalist had me and the girls swooning, singing and clapping. As the ballads continued, a few ladies entertained the rest of the group by dancing. Elvis had a voice extraordinary in quality, range and power; it was and still is soulful and I could feel his melodies uplifting my energy as well as the residents!
The point I am trying to make here is that music is an excellent way to reach beyond the disease and to the person. When used in an appropriate manner, music can shift mood, manage stress-induced agitation, stimulate positive interactions and facilitate cognitive function. If you are in need of an alternative to CDs, consider musicals such as Grease, The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz.
Build On The Present And Trigger The Happy Past
Neville holds monthly “Grab Your Passport” events in which residents and staff are immersed in a foreign countries culture, history and arts via cuisine, costumes, entertainment and decorations. I enjoy attending these events because it sparks discussion and reminiscence between residents. If you are looking for something smaller, try creating themed sensory events such as aromatherapy, pet therapy, or ice cream bar. Any activity relating to photography, the arts, music and cuisine can easily engage a resident. Pleasure is often derived from different types of sensory experiences and stimulating multiple senses can reinforce links to a person’s sense of belonging and help maintain connections. For instance, the resident pictured above, Sally (middle), works well with paint and markers. Art therapy is a big part of Sally”s daily activities. You can catch her at nearly all times during the day creating her masterpieces. I think that this is calming for her and I encourage it when she is feeling down.
Giving Virtual Reality A Go
People over 65 are traditionally thought to be less-experienced with technology when compared to younger adults. This is in part due to decline in perceptual, motor and cognitive function as caused by natural aging and disease. However, technology that is designed to fit an individual”s preferences and capabilities has the potential to promote curiosity, social connectedness and life-long learning. I found this to hold true with my Compass residents when I introduced a few of them to the virtual reality platform provided by Rendever. I first tried it out with Martha, carefully explaining what the headset was and what she would see in it. I picked an activity guide involving animals to follow knowing she was very fond over them; she was immediately intrigued by the environment she was immersed in. I talked her through it, asking her what she noticed and how she felt. Martha told me she never experienced anything like it and could not help but smile the whole way through. When it ended, she asked me if she would be able to try it again soon. And of course, we did!
What I liked most about using virtual reality with my residents, was how this was a shared experience between myself and an individual, giving us time to build on our connection and trust and sharing directly in one another”s delight. I also appreciated how Rendever”s platform made the outside world more accessible to my residents without being too complex to use or too distracting to the user.
Reflecting on this post, the take away point is that these activities we exercise with the residents are therapeutic; they are often innovative and always valuable, allowing them to have experiences that are fun and emotionally freeing. Activities should be tailored to resident”s physical abilities, cognitive functioning levels and emotional needs; despite a dementia diagnosis, individuals can still recall memories and emotions, and learn! Have fun creating your activity schedule and do not stress if you have to make changes along the way. While finding never-ending joy may be difficult, finding happiness within the moment is an easier practice!
Christina, my now fiancé, and I have been through so much together – we have lived in 10 apartments in two cities, held seven jobs, and travelled across three continents in just the past five years. I wanted to do something special to propose to her – something that would represent the connection an engagement symbolizes, a bridge between our past together and the many decades to come. Our engagement is simply part of our life journey together and in the end, these past five years will make up only a small fraction of that journey.
At Rendever, we recently launched our reminiscence module that allows users to visit places from their past; we’ve helped older adults explore the neighborhoods they grew up in, the vacations they took with their loved ones and even places they’d only dreamt of visiting. This was the perfect way for me to propose to Christina – a virtual reality proposal!
The plan was to take her on a trip down memory lane, ending with me down on one knee in virtual reality; she would take off the headset to find me wearing the same outfit holding the ring as I was in VR. With Reed’s help, I captured the VR proposal on the Longfellow Bridge, overlooking the Boston skyline as the sun set. Using the Rendever web portal, I built our life story in virtual reality, starting from the moment we met at my sister’s apartment and the bar where we had our first kiss. I took her to our favorite restaurants, beaches and even to the suit tailor where we got scammed in Thailand (don’t get let that happen to you!).
She had no idea this was coming – she’d just gotten back from a month-long work trip in Mexico and since I’m busy finishing up my second year in graduate school (while running a Company), financially, proposing was probably not the best decision.
Nevertheless, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, I asked her to help demo some of the new features we’d added to the Rendever platform. I secretly set up my iPhone, she put on the headset and away we went. It was all going swimmingly until I pulled out the ring to show to the camera. She heard me rustling around and thought, as I had done many times before, that I would try and scare her. Just as I was changing the VR experience to the proposal scene, she took off the headset. “Oh noooo,” I screamed, “You took it off too early.” In complete shock, she immediately put the headset back on, before taking it off again to hug me.
I guess I didn’t technically propose in virtual reality but that’s just a minor detail and was NOT part of the plan. I’m still not sure she actually ever said, “Yes,” but she’s been wearing the ring around and telling people we’re engaged.
I’m so excited to spend the rest of my life with her, creating more lasting memories for us to share with each other and those we love. What excites me about Rendever is the ability to help so many older adults to relive and cherish their memories and to help them create new and meaningful ones as well.
Here at Rendever, we really pride ourselves on the human-centered approach that guides our everyday conversations. While it’s easier to sit in our office and develop what we think residents would like, it’s far more productive to take the time and understand what life is actually like in assisted living.
This is why we count ourselves so lucky to have found Kaela. While collecting early feedback about the efficacy of our platform, we visited a lot of great assisted living communities in our own backyard. One afternoon at Neville Place, located a short drive west from the MIT campus, our cofounder Reed was discussing the product with the executive director and a couple staff members, including Kaela. She had been working closely with the memory care neighborhood at Neville, and had great ideas about how to better use our platform with the residents she interacted with on a daily basis. After Reed left that afternoon, Kaela made the proactive decision to reach out and see how she could get involved – we couldn’t be happier that she did.
There’s something absolutely invaluable about adding so much 1:1 experience to the team developing this technology. While we’ve all spent time living and volunteering at different facilities, Kaela brings the unique perspective of somebody who knows a small cohort of these residents intimately. Kaela started volunteering at Neville Place over 7 years ago, and the connections she has made over the years are nothing short of significant. When I asked her what the most rewarding aspect of her time has been, her response was telling. “It’s so weird to me when people ask me that. It’s not about me feeling good, I just love them. That’s it.”
This heavily integrated viewpoint is going to be crucial to pushing our product to the next level, and evolving it to a point that addresses the needs of everyone in these communities. While most activity directors spend a lot of time coordinating monthly schedules of events, for Kaela they serve as more of a guideline. “The day is typically preplanned, but it’s very open to me deciding what might be best. I always try to stay in tune with what they want to do. They’re welcome to come and go as they please – they don’t have to participate; they can certainly say no, and some of them do.” What does that mean for Rendever? First, we must offer a combination of easily guided activities, and experiences that are more self-directed. But more importantly, the structure of our sessions needs to be flexible. It goes without saying that virtual reality is an involved technology – the depth is in the name. While we want to create the most realistic experience, it’s critical that we’re not locking any resident into anything. The experience of jumping into a session should be easy, and the freedom to leave at will needs to be felt.
As Kaela is quick to note, we shouldn’t just rely on her words. “Just spend more time in assisted living. There are lots of ideas about how memory care should be run, but you can’t understand the details until you’ve experienced the complexities.” There’s no doubting that she’s right, and we’re actively looking for communities that we can visit for the weekend. If you’re interested in trying virtual reality in your community, we would happily bring the product for you to trial while we’re there. Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s set a playdate.
Some other interesting tidbits Kaela has shared:
- For a lot of her residents, Elvis is the bee’s knees.
- There are countless articles pointing to bingo as the number one activity in these facilities, but would you guess that a daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance is a strong ritual?
- When families come to visit, there is a profound lingering effect of happiness.
- Speaking of happiness – happy hour starts at 6:30!
Hi Dennis, thanks for meeting with me today. To start, why don’t you introduce yourself and talk about your role at Rendever.
Why hello. I’m Dennis Lally, CEO and one of the co-founders here at Rendever. My main responsibility is keeping the office from burning down but I also spend time working with our strategic partners, managing the finances and keeping the lights on.
Well, so far so good – no fires! What were you doing prior to Rendever?
Before starting Rendever, I spent my career working as a healthcare investment banker, which is a fancy way of saying I helped healthcare companies with business development, fundraising and M&A. After I left the corporate world of finance, I started the MBA program at MIT Sloan with a focus on entrepreneurship, which is where we all met.
What inspired you to start Rendever?
Shortly after meeting Reed at MIT, we started talking about the idea of bringing VR to seniors. Reed had personal experience with family members struggling with dementia and aging generally and knew there was an opportunity to use technology to help. We bought an Oculus development kit and after the seeing an 88-year old woman laugh and cry tears of joy when we put her in the headset, I knew this was what I wanted to do. Not only could I start a business, but I could have a big impact on peoples’ lives.
What excites you the most about VR technology?
What excites me most about VR is the ability to connect people like never before – both to the world and to each other.
Where do you predict this technology will be in 5 years?
In 5 years we will see VR transform many industries including real estate, manufacturing, education and healthcare. Haptic feedback, eye tracking and other ancillary components will drive more use cases and create unmatched human-computer interaction.
When you’re not in the office, what passions are you exploring?
Outside the office I love to travel, cook and spend time with my imaginary golden retriever, Roger, who will be made a reality when my fiancé caves. I’m in the market for a used guitar and am excited to add that to the list of hobbies.
I hear we’re all getting golden retrievers in the near future. Can’t wait! One last question – what’s your uber rating?
My Uber rating is a 4.68, which I’m not super proud of. Pretty sure my friends sabotage my rating whenever I offer to pay.
Yikes. Looks like we found a new Q2 goal for you.