Eighty-one-year-old Georgina Schuldt isn't used to being tied down. After retiring from a career in nursing, Schuldt and her husband lived on a boat for eight years, sailing from Canada to Panama. When they returned, they went camping in the Pacific Northwest every summer.
But Schuldt's husband passed away last year. Now she uses a walker, unable to go long distances. She has no interest in getting on a plane or being dependent on someone else to push her in a wheelchair.
Despite all of this, Schuldt was recently able to explore a European city -- in virtual reality. Her Florida assisted living community owns three headsets from MyndVR, a company that creates VR experiences geared toward people age 65 and up.
"The first time I tried it I saw a city in Spain. We were right in the city square, and there was a tourist who walked right in front of me! I could've touched her," Schuldt said. "I thought that was wonderful."
The day we talked, she had just used the headset to visit a forest full of colorful fall leaves.
"It takes you out of your own environment and puts you somewhere else," Schuldt said. "It's very pleasurable to go back and see things that you love but you can't get to anymore."
Nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered socially isolated, according to a 2020 study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Research shows older people who report feeling lonely are more likely to face anxiety, depression, suicide, heart disease, stroke and dementia, a risk rivaling smoking, obesity and physical inactivity.
"If loneliness is persistent and sufficiently severe, it can and does have negative health consequences," said Dr. Dilip Jeste, the senior associate dean for healthy aging and senior care and a distinguished professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego.
The good news? You can make changes to avoid these outcomes, Jeste said. And technology may be one piece of a broader puzzle that gives America's growing population of seniors a more connected and healthy life.
A three-hour (virtual) tour
Virtual reality companies focusing exclusively on seniors are finding their way into senior living communities, aiming to provide an escape from the doldrums of everyday life or point of connection with family members.
Even if seniors live in a community surrounded by others, they may still slowly withdraw and become isolated, MyndVR CEO Chris Brickler said. "As their stimulus diminishes due to age and disease, we have to find other ways to keep them stimulated and engaged," he said.
MyndVR's headset and platform streams more than 200 virtual travel, recreation, music and arts experiences for older adults living in senior communities or at home. These experiences can act as reminiscence therapy by helping them remember parts of their past or as engagement therapy by connecting them with others in their community or family, Brickler said.
"We see families that are locked into the same conversations week after week, slowly making their visits mind-numbing," he added.
Having something new to do together can add some new energy into visits and give seniors a chance to have more substantive conversations, he said.
Traditional therapy typically costs between $100 and $200 per session. A single-user license for MyndVR's platform is less than $1,000 per year, while a multiuser license for community packages average around $5,000 per year, Brickler said. The cost includes the hardware, the library of VR content, and customer and technical support. MyndVR now has tens of thousands of users across 40 states, he added.
Beyond Zoom: Virtual meeting spaces
Some companies, like AARP Innovation Labs, are using VR to keep the elderly connected to their families for a slightly lower cost.
Its latest product is Alcove, a virtual reality house where seniors can meet up with relatives to talk, play games and explore different experiences.
VR offers a sense of presence and immersion that other technologies don't, said Cezara Windrem, head of VR at AARP Innovation Labs and product lead for Alcove. "It could allow families to come together, overcoming cost, time and mobility constraints," Windrem said.
AARP Innovation Labs built Alcove in partnership with Rendever, a startup that creates VR experiences for senior living communities. It launched a first version 2019, which is available free on the Oculus Go platform (and will come to Oculus Quest too later this summer).
Seniors can invite up to four people at a time to join them in a fully immersive virtual chalet in the mountains, surrounded by trees and grass. Explore four different rooms, and even decorate the home with their own photos.
The app offers a guided tour of Paris together, practice meditation, or play checkers or chess. You can take older relatives on real-world adventures. It's free to download and use right now (provided you have an Oculus Go VR headset, which costs $149), with no advertisements. But as more content is added, the company may consider a micro-transactions system for premium VR experiences, so you might pay a few dollars for a top-tier tour.
The virtual element may make hanging out with grandma more attractive to younger people, who can find a connection with them in this new medium, Windrem said.
"We know how much the young generations are attracted to this new technology," she said. "It's wonderful having them find a connection through this new medium and be able to share their love for it with older family members but on their own terms through experiences that everyone can relate to."
Family on demand
But what about the elderly who require physical assistance that virtual reality can't provide -- like help with grocery shopping or tasks around the house?
For seniors, one option is Papa, a service that provides "family on demand" to older adults by pairing them with "Papa Pals." College students who can provide companionship and assistance on tasks like grocery shopping and driving. Plus, those students get paid.
CEO Andrew Parker was inspired to create Papa by his grandfather, who needed help but was isolated. He didn't drive, but also didn't require traditional home care services. Papa launched in 2018 and is now available in 25 states and counting. The company has more than 7,000 Papa Pals on the platform, Parker said.
A majority of members receive Papa as a free benefit via insurance carriers or Medicare Advantage programs. Papa Pals have to go through a background check and vetting process. Fewer than 10% of those who apply are hired, Parker said. But they can make between $12 to $16 an hour, depending on what kind of tasks they are doing. The company is opening applications up beyond college students now, partially because unemployment levels have risen so much as a result of COVID-19.
The company typically signs people up for visits from Papa Pals once or twice a week. Tasks include everything from grocery shopping to driving to doctor appointments to teaching them how to set up technology. One member asked a Papa Pal to accompany her to a wedding, because she didn't want to be a burden on her family. Another, a former Tour de France competitor, asked his Pal to take him on a bike ride -- and quickly outpaced his college-age companion, Parker said.
Those visits look different now because of coronavirus. Papa Pals are helping with contactless grocery deliveries. And most companionship visits have moved to phone calls or video chats.
"We're teaching older adults how to use technology in a way that they probably weren't willing to do generally before," Parker said. "The stigma of being alone is less of an issue now that the whole world is isolated."
Despite the tech industry's best efforts, there's no single research-backed cure for loneliness, Jeste said. The solution has to be multi-dimensional and include physical activity, exercise and social connections. Technology can help, but it won't solve the problem alone, he added.
"The technology industry has traditionally focused on younger people," Jeste said. "Older people don't want something that is cool with a thousand applications. They want something really simple. We need technology that is senior-friendly."
Back in Florida, Schuldt agrees. The simplicity of the VR platform was a major factor in why she enjoyed the experience so much, she said. "You just stick it on your head," Schuldt said. "You don't have to learn a whole bunch of tricks to get it to go."