A senior living community in Franklin has been using virtual reality to engage residents during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Hearth at Franklin is using VR headsets to take residents on trips around the world, play interactive games and practice meditation. In many cases, residents can participate in these actives together, helping to fight isolation.
Executive Director Mike Leebron said it’s been a useful tool during the pandemic, when it’s been hard for many residents to participate in social actives.
"A big part of this is allowing people to do what they normally can't do,” he said. “They can dive underwater. They can jump out of an airplane. They can walk through the forest. Those are all things that have left a lot of these folks behind.”
The coronavirus pandemic has take an enormous toll on senior living communities. In Tennessee, more than 16,000 residents in long term care facilities have contracted COVID-19 and more than 2,000 have died.
In response, communities have restricted the number of visitors and reduced the size and frequency of social events. Those measures protect residents from the coronavirus, but make it more difficult to connect with others, which can also have serious health consequences. Now, leaders at senior living communities are hoping that virtual reality can provide a solution that eases feelings of isolation while also keeping residents safe from the virus.
The VR headsets residents are using at the Hearth are specifically designed for people in senior living communities. The activities director at the Hearth leads the virtual reality sessions. Leebron said that makes it easy for residents to use the new technology.
The Hearth is using VR headsets and activities from a company called Rendever. CEO Kyle Rand said that when the company first started pitching virtual reality activities to senior living communities in 2016 many people laughed at the idea. However, he said once people put the headset on they were quickly convinced.
“For us, in the beginning it was all about getting through the disbelief that you could use cutting edge technology with this demographic,” Rand said.
Rand started Rendever in 2016 to combat the health problems associated with social isolation, which can include heart attacks, stroke and depression. In 2018, his company collaborated with researchers at MIT and found that virtual reality may be a good way to combat isolation for seniors.
The company focuses on using virtual reality for shared experiences. Residents participate in the VR activities together and Rand said the hope is that they come away with a sense of social cohesion.
“Once you reach this point in the aging process your access to the world becomes limited and everything shrinks," Rand said. "You put this headset on and all of a sudden the world is literally your oyster. You can be anywhere and do anything. We took the core idea of that technology and built it out with social engagement in mind.”
Rand said that Rendever was already growing quickly before the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, the company grew even faster as senior living communities have searched for ways to give residents safe social activities.
Leebron has only been at the Hearth in Franklin since the fall of 2019, but was previously the executive director at another senior living community. He said that before the pandemic virtual reality headsets seemed like a nice thing to have, but last year they became essential.
"They provided a good way to get out of the building and something fun to do that's a little outside of the box," he said.
The Hearth in Franklin rolled out its virtual reality activities in early 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic had spread widely in Tennessee. That made it easy to implement VR programs once the pandemic led to more restrictions.
Other senior living communities saw the potential of VR to reduce social isolation, but had trouble rolling out brand new VR programs in the midst of a pandemic.
In January 2020, Craig Carpenter and Kyle Edmunds, who own Digital World Virtual Reality Arcade in Franklin, started working with Morning Pointe in Franklin to develop virtual reality activities for their residents.
The initial sessions were well received. Morning Pointe hoped to expand the program, but had to put it on hold because Carpenter and Edmunds weren’t able physically visit the assisted living center during the pandemic.
Rand said that during the spring of 2020 his company had trouble convincing senior living communities to spend time and energy on start a VR program. Once communities established protocols to protect residents from the coronavirus, activities directors had more bandwidth to focus on the problem of social isolation.
Rendever has been using video calls to help get new clients up to speed without visiting communities in person. The company also rolled out a service where Rendever employees led live virtual reality sessions that clients could participate in, almost like the live exercise classes offered by the fitness company Peleton.
Leebron said that his experience using VR in 2020 has shown him how useful the tool can be, and he plans on continuing to use it long after the pandemic.
He wants to combine the virtual reality programs with aromatherapy and sounds to make the experience even more immersive, and he’s hopeful it will continue to be a tool that improves residents’ lives.
“It allows their mind to escape, but they can also do so safely," he said. "If they can't walk a long distance it's no problem. This platform allows you to do that."