These virtual reality headsets are getting Island seniors where they want to go

Islanders in long-term care are exploring the world without leaving their bedrooms. Health PEI is the first government agency to bring Rendever’s virtual reality platform to residents in long-term care homes.

Technology helps shut-ins fight isolation, loneliness and boredom

Pam Corrigan, right, adjusts a virtual reality headset. Corrigan is recreation manager at the Margaret Stewart Ellis Home, a long term care facility in O'Leary, where the devices are now in use. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Islanders in long-term care are exploring the world without leaving their bedrooms.

Health PEI is the first government agency to bring Rendever's virtual reality platform to residents in long-term care homes.

Rendever is a Boston-cased company that offers virtual reality (VR) technology designed for older adults and seniors.

"What we've built is a platform that allows residents to put on these VR headsets and they can go pretty much anywhere in the world," said Kyle Rand, CEO and co-founder of Rendever.

"They can go back to their childhood home, they can go check off a bucket list item. They can go skydiving. They can go on a hot-air balloon ride. We can even bring them to the International Space Station. But most importantly, they can do all these things together."

Ten pairs of the headsets are now in use in West Prince, in O'Leary and Alberton.

"Wow! Now that was fun," said Eva Rodgerson, chair of the hospital foundation in O'Leary, after she tried it out Wednesday.

Rodgerson sat in an upholstered chair, with the goggles held in place by wide, comfortable head straps. Inside the headset, she was looking at a herd of wild elk, somewhere in the western United States. She could hear the sound of hooves as the shy animals approached. She reached out to try to touch one.

"Takes you right into the real-life experience, in the midst of it," said Rodgerson.

Corrigan serves as virtual tour guide, using a tablet to monitor the participant's experience. Eva Rodgerson, chair of the O'Leary Community Hosptial Foundation, is wearing the headset. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

In these days of pandemic isolation and loneliness for some seniors, health-care providers in West Prince see more than just pretty pictures in the new technology.

The goal was fighting social isolation, said Paul Young, Community Hospital West administrator. "The feedback from patients and residents has been overwhelmingly positive." 

Staff use a tablet to monitor sessions and encourage participants to speak with one another about what they are feeling and experiencing.

The technology lets seniors "take a walk" down any street, anywhere in the world. So some West Prince seniors are using the technology to drop by the rural farmhouses where they once lived.

We could really improve the quality of life for our people.— Eva Rodgerson, O'Leary Community Health Foundation

"We ask them where they'd like to go today and off they go," said Pam Corrigan, recreation manager of the Margaret Stewart Ellis Home in O'Leary. "We use it pretty near daily, depending on what we're doing."

Staff in West Prince are now talking to the Rendever team in Boston about creating more virtual tours based in Prince County, perhaps offering strolls along local fishing wharfs and trips to potato fields at harvest time.

Participants feel themselves "surrounded" in the virtual reality experience. This image of an elk in the western United States is part of the many virtual tours that seniors in West Prince are now experiencing. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

"Where people have dementia, their world is so small," said Rodgerson.

"If I was a fisherman or a farmer, to be able to take me back in time where I could see myself hopping on a fishing boat or working at a potato field, we could really improve the quality of life for our people."

VR easy for seniors to use

When Rand started Rendever about four and a half years ago, the belief was that older people might not take to technology like this. Not so, he said.

"All they have to do is put the headset on and everything is controlled by a tablet. So staff members in the community, or family member or a volunteer — they control the entire experience," he said.

"You put on the headset, physical space doesn't matter, you can be socially together."

Health PEI has run more than 2,400 sessions with participants spending 59 hours in VR, according to Rand.

O'Leary Community Health Foundation purchased the technology with assistance from the federal and provincial governments.

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Tony Davis


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