Dementia is a terrible disease that affects millions of elderly people all over the world. That’s why it’s so great that seniors with dementia may be getting the chance to “come alive again” thanks to a new piece of technology developed by a young student.
Reed Hayes is a student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management whose goal is to help senior citizens overcome depression and isolation through the immersive world of virtual reality. Recently, he headed to an assisted living facility to test out his creation on an elderly man with dementia. Not knowing what would happen next, Reed placed a headset on the man and turned on a virtual reality experience featuring a three-dimensional painting by Vincent Van Gogh and a classical piano playing in the background. What happened next shocked everyone who was present at the time.
“He just came alive,” Hayes said. “He started moving around, tapping his feet, laughing. He was all of a sudden much more engaged in the world, and this from someone who was slouched over, to now kind of bouncing around. [My classmate] Dennis and I looked at each other like, ‘Holy cow, we might be onto something.’ It was remarkable.”
Hayes and his business partner Dennis Lally went on to create the startup Rendever, which has brought these VR experiences to more than 100 senior living communities, and has also launched in hospitals so patients of all ages could experience this as well.
“Starting Rendever was one of the most important things I’ve done in my life,” Hayes said. “It holds a special place in my heart, and it’s probably the most material impact I’ll have in my life.”
The main product offered by Rendever is it’s resident engagement platform, which offers users a variety of games and activities like virtual scuba diving and hiking. It includes content from diverse sources that let users travel almost anywhere in the world. It should be noted that one of the most important aspects of the platform is its ability to sync to multiple headsets at once, prompting social group activities.
“It’s amazing to see them point things out to each other and engage with one another, yelling ‘Look left!’ Or ‘There’s a puppy at our feet!’” said Grace Andruszkiewicz, Rendever’s director of marketing and partnerships. “Or, if they’re in Paris, someone might say, ‘I was in Paris in 1955 and there was this cute café,’ and people start adding details and telling their own stories. That’s where the magic happens.”
There’s even a family engagement portal that allows relatives to upload personal content like photos or videos that let users relive fond memories or be present in places they can’t physically be in.
Lally recalls one of the earliest tests they completed in which they allowed an older woman the experience of seeing the Notre-Dame cathedral in France.
“She was so ecstatic to be able to see this church from the inside, something she had dreamt about, and we were able to kind of fulfill a lifelong dream of hers,” Lally said.
There have been many other powerful user experiences as well.
“Once there was an older adult who just kept saying ‘I want to go home,’ but she was in an assisted living community because she was showing signs of dementia,” Hayes remembered. “With the technology that we’d built, we were able to type in the address of her home and take her there. And she started crying tears of joy. She kept saying, ‘This is the most beautiful place in the world.’”
Before Andruszkiewicz took a job with Rendever, she asked if she could take a demo set to her own 89-year-old grandmother.
“She started telling me stories that I’d never heard before, and she and I have a really close relationship, so it was surprising that some of her memories had come back,” Andruszkiewicz says. “That sealed the deal for me.”
Find out more about this incredible life-changing technology in the video below.