When COVID-19 sidelined most of our group activities and forced us to think differently about our approach to therapeutic recreation, we turned to a trusted source of fun, safe and individualized entertainment: virtual reality.

Through virtual reality, our residents sat on stage to watch a performance of the Minnesota Opera. One particular resident began beautifully singing along and then explained that she used to sing with the Chicago Opera. Another resident explored the beaches of Maui through virtual reality and kicked off her shoes and socks in delight, imagining she was burying her toes in the sand.

We began offering WellnessVR virtual reality to residents in our Pillars senior living communities in 2019. Oppidan Investment Co., a national property development firm headquartered in Minneapolis and owner of The Pillars senior living communities, made this a priority for our residents to enjoy long before COVID. This investment has proven to be successful as the pandemic forced us to innovate quickly to keep our residents engaged and reduce social isolation.

Not all virtual reality is the same. The system we use specifically is designed to reduce stress and promote well-being among older adults and those with disabilities, which means we confidently can allow residents to use the headsets on their own, from the comfort of their own rooms. The content library includes a wealth of 360-degree video that brings a world of experiences to residents in three broad categories: relax, travel and culture. There aren’t scenes with a lot of motion, making it perfect for our residents. There’s always something new and interesting for them.

The results have been astounding. More than 400 residents at four Pillars communities use the virtual reality programming across all levels of the communities’ senior housing, including independent living, assisted living and memory care. Our team reports that after experiencing VR, residents are more calm and experience fewer instances of sundowning. This is powerful.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the positive effects of virtual reality on our residents. Ebenezer, the largest senior living provider in Minnesota, was the first to try WellnessVR at its Minneapolis campus in 2017.

The results of this pilot study were outstanding. Residents in assisted living and skilled nursing reported the following after experiencing the system twice a week for four weeks:

  • 96% felt happier
  • 97% felt more relaxed
  • 98% felt more positive
  • 94% felt less worried
  • All respondents reported that they enjoyed their experience.

Together, we’re helping disrupt the industry to give older adults the most advanced lifestyle with access to leading-edge technologies. In the age of COVID, virtual reality provides a wonderful solution to helping our residents create a new adventure or reminisce about past experiences without leaving their chairs.

Oppidan and Ebenezer believe that by harnessing the power of imagination to transform lives, anything is possible, and we constantly are looking for new ways to help our residents thrive within our communities. Virtual reality has proven to be a success in cultivating happy, engaged residents.