Patrick May couldn’t remember whether to wear his glasses — or where he left them, for that matter — when he put on the virtual reality headset that’s become a regular part of his twice weekly routine.
“It’s blurry,” said May as an assistant at Signature Pointe Senior Living in Dallas helped him adjust the headset. A staffer retrieved May’s glasses, and the image in front of him came into view.
May lives in Signature Pointe’s memory care unit, where all residents have some form of memory difficulties such as Alzheimer’s or other dementia diseases.
Chris Brickler, co-founder of Dallas-based virtual reality company MyndVR, is hoping that VR headsets will help adults like May retrieve or replicate memorable moments in their lives. The company specializes in the use of virtual reality for aging adults in assisted living communities.
May remembered that he used to scuba dive and asked an assistant to place him in a scuba simulation. He used to enjoy diving off the Texas coast.
The simulation took him once again, diving off a small boat into blue water.
“Wow, what’s all that stuff?” May said, pivoting his head in every direction and pushing his wheelchair around the room to different areas of the virtual environment lined with fish, coral and the occasional turtle.
“Wow, a fisherman’s delight,” May said, laughing as a school of fish swam by.
Signature Pointe, a continuum of care facility managed by senior living operator Life Care Services, is one of 35 facilities nationally using the technology. It incorporates virtual reality into resident activities, offering it twice a week to residents of all cognitive abilities. Signature Pointe staff members report back their findings in the form of surveys to MyndVR.
Signature Pointe’s sales and marketing director Nancy McCarthy brought MyndVR to the center after hearing about its potential benefits.
“They really enjoy it a lot, probably a lot more than I thought they would,” McCarthy said.
Brickler, a former Silicon Valley executive and consultant, founded the Dallas-based company in 2017 with friend Shawn Wiora, who worked in health care technology. The company started off as a question of shared interests when the pair asked themselves, “How can we improve the lives of older people with virtual reality and music as a foundation?”
In 2017, the company tested the technology on hundreds of seniors across five states, gathering feedback after each test.
While Brickler was hopeful, he didn’t expect the level of impact he’s seen.
“We’re constantly seeing breakthroughs in how VR can help with health,” Brickler said.
MyndVR officially rolled out its technology in April 2018 and now serves senior communities in more than 20 states. MyndVR’s basic package includes headsets, tech support and fresh content every month for about $500 per month. Pricing varies based on the size and needs of the senior home.
The devices are increasingly used to address a variety of situations, including resident isolation, dementia care, pain management and staff training, according to a report by Senior Housing News. It looked at five virtual reality companies serving senior homes.
It could be a powerful opportunity for aging adults in North Texas. In Dallas County alone, there are over 255,000 adults aged 65 or older, according to census data.
MyndVR’s sweet spot is giving virtual experiences to seniors of any level of cognitive ability. But Brickler said it’s particularly useful for seniors in memory care or who can no longer travel.
The hope is that VR will help trigger areas of the brain that connect to memory and cognition in the same way music or other less-than-traditional treatments do.
While there’s no medical data on MyndVR at this point, there’s anecdotal evidence that shows promising results in memory care patients, Brickler said.
“It is a powerful, powerful technology that can bring people back to a memory state,” Brickler said.
Besides sparking memories in seniors, the technology allows staff to get to know residents’ likes, dislikes and experiences, said Signature Pointe’s McCarthy.
The technology also allows aging adults to take virtual safaris or trips to monuments they might never get a chance to see.
MyndVR’s current product uses an HTC VIVE headset and a menu system with hundreds of choices. The company creates and licenses VR content, from concerts to a trip down Route 66. Other popular categories are animals, nature and travel.
The realistic simulations are filmed by MyndVR. Brickler said the realism is necessary for a population that didn’t “grow up on Donkey Kong” and are less familiar with exploring computer-generated worlds.
In the assisted living unit at Signature Pointe, residents watched a variety of 15- to 20-minute simulations.
One resident, Robert Bascher, sat nearly still as his headset rocketed him toward the ground in a virtual skydiving trip. He typically moves around less than other residents, who often tilt their heads or bodies to take in the virtual environments.
But for him, it’s a win.
Bascher has Parkinson’s disease and has near constant tremors in his hands and body. But after using the VR headset, the staff found that his symptoms eased.
The positive effects for Bascher can last anywhere between 15 minutes to an hour. McCarthy called it an unexpected surprise.
Another resident, Carol Mongoven, giggled along to a simulation she was watching. Her virtual journeys took her to Hawaii, a place she’s always wanted to go, and let her travel to Universal Studios Hollywood to visit Jurassic Park.
“It shows me places I would never be able to go otherwise, and it’s very realistic,” Mongoben. “It’s fascinating.”
MyndVR serves only senior communities, but Brickler thinks there are broader in-home uses of the technology.
“It’s a wide-open space,” Brickler said.