Carl Horzmann has found a way to take his 87-year-old dad scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, go skiing for the first time and bring him on a tour of his old neighborhood in Union, NJ, where he grew up — all with the help of virtual reality.
As part of a Phase I clinical trial with the University of California, Santa Barbara, the Hortsmann family has enjoyed a new way to connect with the older Hortsmann, Ted, who lives in the assisted living facility in Massachusetts.
“It was a great experience. My dad was really blown away by it,” said Carl Horzmann, 61. He kept coming back to it and would like to talk about it and do it again.”
“I was so engrossed in the activity that I didn’t even think about a headset. I’m going to have my own set, so when my family travels, they can take me with them,” said Ted Horsman. “I got a lot of fun out of it.”
A phase I clinical trial found significant emotional benefits for older adults. Users experienced decreased negative emotions and feelings of isolation, increased positive feelings and engagement with their family members, and an overall better quality of life. Family members reported similar mental health benefits along with a significant reduction in caregiver guilt after using the virtual reality platform with their loved ones.
Anshel Sag, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said virtual reality products got a boost from the COVID-19 pandemic when people wanted to be away but still have social connections.
A phase II study funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is currently underway.
Even after the pandemic, Sage said, there is a demand for seniors to connect with family and friends through technology.
“There is an ever-growing market for seniors to connect with their families, especially as travel becomes more difficult as you get older. The size of the market is growing as baby boomers retire and get older,” Sage said.
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Moving into an older community can lead to depression in the elderly, with 40% of the elderly experiencing depression or isolation during their stay. Research has shown that social isolation is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“Social isolation remains high, even in communities where seniors live,” said Rendever CEO and co-founder Kyle Rand. “People live next to each other but they don’t form a community. A large population also wants to grow old. There is a great danger or trap of social isolation in that.”
The technology, called Alcove, is a consumer VR product available to families at home through their VR headset. Consumers can download Alcove for free. Rendever Inc. has acquired Inc., a company based in Somerville, Massachusetts, received Alcove this month from its development partner AARP.
By bringing Alcove home, Rendever said it wants to expand the product’s reach to create a better aging experience for seniors around the world, no matter where they live.
While Rendever has traditionally focused on seniors living in senior citizens’ communities, hospices, and hospital patients, the acquisition of Alcove will accelerate Rendever’s mission to shape virtual communities and expand the use of technology.
Through the acquisition, Rendever is better supporting seniors by bringing shared experiences to millions of seniors at home, along with their families and caregivers.
“With Alcove, anyone can savor the Rendever experience from the comfort of their own home, downloaded at any moment through the Quest Store. Creating Alcove with AARP has allowed us to bring even more happiness to the world’s aging population, and we’re excited to continue that mission in a meaningful way.” More practical.
Rand said 500 communities of seniors have used Alcove, with 1.5 million trials over a total of six years of time.
It’s hard to predict the size of the potential market, but Sage said he sees the market growing into hundreds of millions of dollars soon “because of the growing number of senior citizens, and also the availability of virtual reality headsets.”
“One thing to keep in mind is that as people get older, their eyesight tends to decline and they don’t need headphones or HD experiences and are more than happy and amazed with what’s available today,” Sage said.
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“The next stage of growth is the opportunity to blur the line between old age and old age,” Rand said. “Virtual reality is a key tool for challenging these physical barriers and shaping society. It is a tool that enables community building. When one thinks about the aging process, there is no one size fits all. This is a tool in the toolbox.”