NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—To help residents deal with social isolation, Parker Life at Landing Lane in New Brunswick has incorporated the virtual reality (VR) platform called Rendever.

There are also Parker Life homes at Somerset, Monroe, Stonegate, and River Road. The homes have made changes to meet the needs of their residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, including incorporating virtual reality technology.

“Parker is always interested in looking at new ways to enhance our residents’ experiences, whether it’s through technology or care and services,” said Judy Collett-Miller, Director of Planning and Technology Innovation at Parker Life. “We’ve known about VR. It has been around for a long time. It’s become more popular within aging services, so we have been thinking about it.”

Collett-Miller says the pandemic really accelerated her efforts to use this service.

“We reached out to two companies that we were familiar with and then did vetting of both of their products,” she said. “We actually had them send headsets to all of our different sites so all of our recreation directors can actually use the equipment. They did demos for us before we made our selection.”

The companies were Rendever and MyndVR, and they chose Rendever. It was all about getting more opportunities for positive experiences to the Parker Life residents.

Since using the product, the residents have had a wonderful reaction to it.

“I have to say, from the minute they started using it they really enjoyed it for really different reasons,” Collett-Miller said. “Even though we had restrictions in place, we were able to do some virtual visits.”

For obvious reasons, the residents weren’t able to do many group activities but they were spaced out in their rooms and were able to have a communal experience through the VR technology.

“They went on a trip to London and other places,” she said. “We used it in group settings, but we also did a lot of one-on-one visits, as well.”

The Parker Life at Landing Lane home in particular did a lot of one-on-one visits.

“They had a particular resident who was on hospice services, and she had been to the Grand Canyon a long time ago and it was one of her favorite experiences,” she said. “They were able to bring her back to the Grand Canyon through VR.”

A resident at Parker Life at Landing Lane using the Rendever headset

VR technology being used to help residents with terminal illnesses or cognitive decline reminisce about good times in their lives.

A Parker Life at Landing Lane resident with dementia was also taken to a waterfall and museum during VR visits.

“What is interesting is that she was very interactive,” she said. “She was pointing. She was gesturing. She was moving with the technology so they were very excited to see her engaged in a different way than somebody else.”

Tara Cunningham is the Activities Director at Parker Life at Landing Lane, and she has seen very positive reactions first hand from residents.

“We started using the virtual reality back in June of 2020,” Cunningham said. “It was something our director of technology, Judy, was informing us about. We all had different meetings to get more information on it. Ever since, it has been a huge success.”

During the course of the pandemic, she saw the residents struggle with loneliness, boredom and sadness from being away from family members.

“Virtual reality has given them a sense of belonging again,” she said. Growing up with her grandparents, Cunningham has always been interested in elder care.

“I did a lot of volunteer work, and my college internship was in elder care, as well,” she said.

Even after the pandemic is “over,” she still plans on having residents at the home use the VR technology. “Not only is it really great for travel and culture, there’s so much on there. One of the other things it’s great for is sensory simulation,” she said.

For elders who are non-verbal and are unable to make their needs known, the residents are still able to use the VR technology to connect with others.

As Recreation Supervisor, she manages the day-to-day activates going on in the home. However, the pandemic has challenged her to keep the residents connected to their families.

She has been setting up a lot of video communication schedules on Facetime and Skype, on top of window and outdoor visits.

Parker staff is on hand to help residents using the technology

Jake from Rendever trained the Landing Lane staff and answered all of their questions.

The technology is set up in a tablet that is synced to the headsets.

This allows the activity directors to send out the videos to the users.

If a resident isn’t comfortable with the headset, they can start with just looking at the tablet and then slowly bring the headset up to their eyes and strap it on.

“We started about five years ago,” said Kyle Rand, CEO of Rendever. “We have been on a mission.”

He saw the impacts of social isolation on his grandmother, so he has always been interested in helping the elderly population cope with the isolation of aging.

“The data shows that the health impacts can be as detrimental as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, or an increase in dementia risk, 32% increase in stroke and 29% increase in heart disease,” he said.

He wants to bring the world to this special demographic through this technology. “Our core guiding principle is that the foundation of human relationships is shared positive experiences,” he said.

A silver lining of this pandemic in his view is that he doesn’t have to explain how detrimental social isolation is.

Even as millions get the COVID-19 vaccine and things are getting back to normal, we can’t forget how isolation impacts seniors.

The case fatality rate of COVID-19 for seniors is about 12 to 25 percent and social isolation increases the mortality rate in this population by up to 30%.

The magic of VR is that seniors can connect with others will also being physically distant.

The company also launched the Connection Corner, which allows user to sit with one another on a virtual coach after the experience is over, look at each other as avatars, and continue communicating with each other.

“The VR has been such in light in something that has been so dark,” he said.

The company is nearing 300 communities across North America, and they work with health care systems and hospice organizations, as well.

In the future, the company could potentially sell the product direct to consumers outside of nursing homes but they are very happy working with the senior care industry for right now.

They are doing a study that is funded by the National Institute on Aging to study the impact of virtual family interaction.

“We have a family platform where family members are able to upload old family photos and videos. But they can also take their own 360 camera, film something like a birthday party or a wedding, and the loved one can put on a headset and feel like they’re there at the event,” he said.

They also have the Reminiscence Journey, or life story builder, where you can recreate someone’s life story in a location-by-location basis, such as a childhood home or vacation destination.

“You can bring them there in VR and… recreate those moments,” he said.

When a family does this together, the emotion health of the senior improves. Caregiver guilt decreases, as well. The ongoing study is currently in phase two of clinical trials and has expanded to twelve locations across the United States.

If a home wants to get the technology, all they have to do is reach out. Parker Life at Landing Lane is one of the company’s most active users.

“Any senior living community can use Rendever,” he said.

Haley Cafarella is a passionate journalist and content developer. She is currently creating content for IFPG, a franchise broker network, and writes articles for its franchise news site, FranchiseWire. In addition to contributing to New Brunswick Today, the Rutgers University journalism graduate has also written for The Buttonwood Tree, the Trenton Monitor, and Quo Vadis, Middlesex College's student newspaper.