Dec 15 2020

How to Launch a Strong Virtual Reality Program in Senior Care

Relatively inexpensive and simple to maintain, some virtual reality tools can have noticeable benefits for residents’ health and well-being.

Digital engagement tools have become a core part of senior living communities. More mobile devices and platforms are helping residents connect with loved ones and clinicians from their rooms or apartments, functions that are vital during COVID-19.

Virtual reality headsets are finding a place in this ecosystem. 

VR initiatives, properly deployed and managed, can help participants see faraway places, surround themselves with animals or nature — and, in some cases, even “stand” in familiar 360-degree settings such as a childhood street or schoolyard.

For seniors, the benefits go beyond entertainment. Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab found older adults who used a VR system were more likely to feel positive about their health and emotions, less likely to be depressed, and less likely to feel socially isolated compared with those viewing similar content on TV.

Moreover, 9 in 10 elderly adults reported feeling more relaxed and rated their well-being higher after engaging in VR sessions, according to a 2018 study conducted at a senior care residence in Minnesota.

Caregivers also can benefit. 

“Virtual reality is an incredibly useful staff training tool, particularly if you’re working with people who are living with dementia, because there are VR programs designed to help understand what it feels like to live with dementia,” Katie Sloan Smith, president of LeadingAge, an association of nonprofit providers of aging services, tells HealthTech

Setting up a VR program in senior care requires advance planning, ongoing management and a flexible strategy to identify and evolve ideal use cases to serve residents. Here’s what residence and activities directors should know: 

Determine How VR Can Engage and Entertain Senior Care Residents

Maplewood Senior Living, which launched a VR pilot program in 2017, has since expanded the effort into all of its 15 communities across three states. The program is wildly popular among residents and has evolved over time to feature eight headsets at each location.

Brian Geyser, vice president of clinical innovation and population health for the Connecticut-based organization, recommends interviewing different VR vendors to learn how their offerings might suit older adults.

Those discussions led Maplewood to partner with Massachusetts-based Rendever, which develops VR programs for seniors and uses Oculus headsets that can be programmed and managed by activities directors via an iPad device. (Rendever gained wider attention in 2019 when residents at a Boston-area community were able to experience the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl victory parade via VR).

READ MORE: What will senior care residences of the future look like?

Providers must weigh issues of cost and maintenance when launching a program. At Maplewood, the cost to implement VR was $104,000, according to Senior Housing News. The monthly cost, however, to support content, training and ongoing support services is $320 per community. 

Just more than one-third of adults age 45 and older are lonely, a 2018 AARP report notes. It also cites that extended isolation doesn’t just pose a threat to physical health to seniors; it costs an average of $134 more per month in Medicare spending. 

Another question for residence directors concerns the type of VR they might implement. These types include smartphone-based programs that attach to a head-mounted display, standard VR headsets that pair with a smartphone or contain built-in software and headsets that connect to a gaming console. 

The scope of VR deployments in senior living also may vary. Some VR programs might be used in a group setting (when it’s safe to do so); others could support users in a solo context or connected to others in a virtual world.

“Not all virtual reality is the same,” Anita Cornelius, regional housing living director at Ebenezer Management Services in Minneapolis, writes in a McKnight’s Senior Living editorial. “The system we use specifically is designed to reduce stress and promote well-being among older adults and those with disabilities, which means we confidently can allow residents to use the headsets on their own.”

A closer look at VR programs in action at Maplewood Senior Living, which has used the technology since 2017.

Ensure Strong Infrastructure and Asset Management for Virtual Reality

Although some VR headsets might function right out of the box, most require some type of connectivity to launch and operate. At Maplewood, teams use iPad devices to program and manage the headsets.

No matter the scope of a residence’s virtual reality efforts, “all of these things are going to require some robust Wi-Fi infrastructure,” Ginna Baik, a senior care strategist for CDW Healthcare, told attendees at a virtual session at HIMSS20 earlier this year. 

Having a plan to track use and location of the assets also is important. Geyser advises locking up headsets between sessions; otherwise, he notes, “they can walk away.” 

Device hygiene is critical. Senior care providers should choose VR headsets that are easy to clean and disinfect them after each use with alcohol-based wipes. Ensure staffers know how to charge and properly store VR devices so they’re ready for use at any time.

It’s also important to include and promote VR programs in an activities schedule so residents have equal opportunity to enjoy the tools. Monitoring user patterns and soliciting feedback may inform changes to or expansions of the offering.

It could also support more clinical use cases.

“For some residents in memory care, VR can be a good distraction tool,” Geyser tells HealthTech. “If we know that every day at around 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. a particular resident gets agitated and we know VR can help calm them down, we actually put that in the care plan and use it as a therapeutic intervention.”

Track and Analyze Therapeutic Outcomes of VR in Senior Care

The common thread of VR deployments in senior care is fun and engagement. But myriad opportunities to boost strong health might be stronger arguments for launching a program. 

That’s because the immersive scenery — virtual visits to the Eiffel Tower or the Grand Canyon, for instance — can do more than stimulate a user in the moment; it can prompt group discussions afterward. Users might talk about their favorite vacations or reflect on the images they just saw.

Rendever, for one, that use Google technologies to cue up real-life images of street scenes, such as a viewer’s childhood home or a school they once attended.

Other uses have grown more personal: Some VR platforms can now facilitate virtual visits to museums and cultural institutions, allow loved ones to upload their own 360-degree videos from family functions, and give residents the ability to make custom avatars for virtual group meetups while staying socially distanced. 

These and other functions, though helpful during the pandemic, have been growing in potential since before the health crisis — and they have the ability to inform care delivery in the years to come. 

The conversation must continue: A recent white paper from CDW and the Front Porch Center for Innovation and Wellbeing advises care providers to regularly test their VR products with key stakeholders, keep in close contact with solutions partners and share lessons learned so the tools can evolve to better serve elderly users. 

Responses from seniors also can inform a VR program at all stages.

During the Maplewood VR pilot, “the residents were blown away by the experience and they couldn't stop talking about it,” Geyser says. “I had never seen a reaction like that to any program that we’ve ever offered. They were calling it magical.”

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