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Sixty years ago, Robert Butler was an outlier. A physician in New York with specialties in gerontology and psychiatry, he believed seniors could experience cognitive benefits for their current and future well-being by revisiting the past. Butler wrote about his ideas to the dismay of colleagues, who dismissed the idea of “living” in the past. Today, Butler’s ideas are no longer discouraged but embraced: Reminiscence Therapy is a modern version of work done by the founder of the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health.

Butler, who won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction for his book Why Survive? Being Old in America, died in 2010. He believed in the “therapeutic value” of individuals revisiting the past. His theory was first practiced at its basics. Individuals or groups discussed important memories after viewing photographs or listening to music.

Reminiscence therapy is now widely practiced, with the added components of virtual and augmented reality and using four key elements: virtual world, immersion, sensory feedback and interactivity. The treatments have several additional names, including virtual reality immersion therapy, simulation for therapy, virtual reality exposure therapy and computerized cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). By any name, the idea is the same. Patients complete specialty tasks tailored to specific diagnoses via digitally created environments, often by wearing earplugs or goggles.

Rendever, based in Somerville, Massachusetts, and MyndVR, headquartered in Plano, Texas, are among the half-dozen companies providing VR reminiscence therapy for senior care. Rendever, a combination name from the words “render” and “endeavor,” is the largest company in the field with about 450 facilities in the United States, Canada and Australia.

“The impact of Rendever’s technology is remarkable,” says Rendever VP David Stoller. “Whether it is seeing someone with dementia smile for the first time because they’ve unlocked a memory they’d otherwise forgotten, or hearing the excitement from participants after a competitive bike ride in RendeverFit, the Rendever community consistently demonstrates there is no end to the moments and magic created through this virtual reality platform.”

The Rendever platform is part of the care at Cypress Cove, the assisted living community in Fort Myers, and retirement community Vi at Bentley Village and transitional care facility Gardens at Terracina Health and Rehabilitation, both in Naples. The company’s program is also used in several affiliated locations of the Volunteers of America in Fort Myers.

Harmonia the Club, the senior day stay business in Naples, utilizes virtual reality and augmented reality products from different companies with its club members. Harmonia’s staff helps club members, ages 62 to 97, achieve well-established clinical benefits for various ailments. It helps victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, and also improves clients’ cognitive skills from dementia and muscle control after strokes.

“The whole idea is to keep people cognitively active and also physically active,” says Peter Spisak, co-founder of Harmonia. “When a club member is in the right group, it stimulates their brain and slows down the dementia process. When they spend the whole day here, they sleep better, they eat better.”

In some instances, caregivers have used virtual reality to simulate dementia patients’ experiences. It helps professionals gain insight into what seniors are experiencing.

“When they (a club member) are in a group with their peers who are on the same level, people really feel like they are a part of something,” says Spisak. “Of course, everyone is a little different; they are all individuals. But in a group setting, people socialize and they become friends.”

In recent years, field studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California in San Francisco reported seniors experienced “better perceived overall health” after the use of virtual reality.

The MIT study cited that nearly 39% of a group reported health improvement after watching relaxation and travel virtual reality images. Only 14.3% of the same group reported better health after watching the same images on television.

In the UCSF study, 48 adults with an average age of 68.7 showed long-term memory improvement after playing a specially developed VR game regularly for a month. Those who play the same game on a computer tablet didn’t have long-term memory improvement, according to the results published in the magazine Nature.

“Some people can barely talk, but when you play or sing the right music or sing the right song, they come back to life,” says Spisak. “The long-term memory is still there and they may sing along, but they may have never said a word in a discussion. We’ve had people here who after a few months go to their neurologist and have far better test results.”

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