Kyle Rand: “Journaling and notes of affirmation”

We have been studying loneliness for more than four years. We have led studies, partnered with experts, are regularly asked to speak at events and contribute to cross-industry whitepapers. Perhaps most importantly, we have conversations with caregivers on the front lines — working with one of the most vulnerable populations to loneliness — every day of the week. While […]

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We have been studying loneliness for more than four years. We have led studies, partnered with experts, are regularly asked to speak at events and contribute to cross-industry whitepapers. Perhaps most importantly, we have conversations with caregivers on the front lines — working with one of the most vulnerable populations to loneliness — every day of the week. While the quantitative data is important, the qualitative insights we glean from the staff members who witness the effects of loneliness firsthand while interacting with seniors are what help us maximize the impact of our platform, and hold us accountable to maintaining the customer-centric nature of everything we do.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kyle Rand, Cofounder & CEO of Rendever.

Kyle grew up volunteering in a senior living community, and went on to study cognitive decline in the aging population. His neuroscience research was largely focused on the link between functional structural changes in the brain that happen as you age, and the associated deficits in economic-based decision making. He also studied neuroprosthetics and has been published for his work linking reward-based behavior coding with motor area activation in monkeys. Since joining the tech world, he has led the development of a niche research-based social network, created a crowdfunding platform for ecological conservation, and architected a grassroots initiative focused on increasing healthcare access in populations-in-need, which was eventually recognized by the Obama administration. After having a negative personal experience moving his grandmother into a senior living community, he realized the severe impact of social isolation on seniors, and cofounded Rendever to use new virtual reality technology to build communities and increase resident engagement through the power of shared experiences.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?

Older adults have had a very special place in my heart for as long as I can remember. As a kid, my friends and I would spend every summer volunteering and scooping ice cream at a local senior living community. I remember the feeling when the residents’ faces lit up if we knew exactly what they wanted (rum raisin with chocolate sprinkles was a favorite combo!). It was profound to learn how such a simple act of kindness could be so impactful.

I then went to Duke and did a dual program in cognitive neuroscience and biomedical engineering, and worked in two laboratories focused on quite different topics. Part of my research was focused on studying the effects of social sensory inputs on motor activation in monkeys (the laboratory was behind the Walk Again project so all of our research was building towards functional exoskeletons!), and the other part focused on studying cognitive decline in the aging population. We were particularly interested in decision-making processes, and studying the correlation between structural changes in the brain and the deficits in sound decision-making that occur as humans age. The day-to-day ended up being many hours of sitting with older adults and walking them through these cognitive experiments.

As I was wrapping up at school, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, which triggered a pretty tough decision-making process for our whole family (especially my parents and their siblings). Ultimately, my family helped her move into a senior living community to ensure the highest quality of care and support. While she had incredible medical care, it was harder to notice from afar that she began to feel the immense weight of social isolation that is all too common among seniors.

Her cancer progressed aggressively and she experienced rapid cognitive decline. It was absolutely heartbreaking for our family. While I would not wish this experience on anyone, seeing the powerful impact of combining rapid disease progression and cognitive decline with social isolation firsthand motivated me to spend my time and energy searching for, and eventually building, a better solution.

Around this time, virtual reality (VR) was emerging as a promising technology. I joined a few other people that were interested in exploring the use of VR with seniors, and we quickly built a prototype of today’s Rendever platform and initiated research with the MIT AgeLab and Benchmark Senior Living. The results showed that within only two weeks of using Rendever daily, residents reported a statistically significant increase in multiple social health measures, including feelings of trust, and a statistically significant decrease in depression scores.

Between the promising results of our initial research and the pure joy we were witnessing as older adults simply tested the technology, we knew that there was magic here. Since then, we have dedicated ourselves to building a platform that brings those magical moments to seniors every day, improving their quality of life and facilitating healthy relationship building, all through the power of shared experiences and human connection.

Can you share the most interesting/eye-opening story that happened to you since you started your career?

This is a tough one to share, but I think it highlights the importance of being able to take a step back and remember the “why” behind everything. It was early on in our progress towards commercializing Rendever, and we had just signed our first large contract to rollout the platform to an entire family of communities. To support this process, I attended in-person grand opening ceremonies of a couple of the buildings, including a stunning location on Cape Cod.

Allow me to set the scene. It was a lovely summer day, and I was driving down the mid-cape highway with my windows fully rolled down, car full to the brim with VR hardware. Beyond looking forward to a wonderful event, it was my first time visiting the cape in the summer, so I was generally excited. Plus, this contract was a significant inflection point during the challenge of early commercialization, so I was in a pretty amazing mood. Or so I had thought.

Our deployment process was not fully ready yet, so most of the devices were only partially set up, and I was driving as fast as possible knowing I had to demonstrate the platform to a large cohort of important guests about an hour after I arrived. As I was nearing the tail end of the cape, I had my first ever panic attack. It was an awful turn of events, to say the least.

In that moment, I pulled over, got out of the car and reminded myself of what mattered. I looked at photos from recent demonstrations that we had done, focusing on the pure joy we could evoke by bringing someone back to their childhood home for the first time in decades. I watched a video of a woman — who had been recently diagnosed with dementia and was struggling to find happiness — totally light up and laugh as puppies started running around her field of view. I focused on the way the rest of the room started to tear up while hearing her voice fill with happiness for the first time in months. I called my cofounder and listened to him share the sudden technical breakthroughs he had made in a particularly challenging component of our infrastructure. I took a step back and reminded myself of the mission we were on and the impact for which we are striving.

Three years later, this has become a core component of the day-to-day operations at this company. When the pressure is on to constantly evolve and show up in an ever-shifting landscape, it is unsurprisingly easy to overextend yourself and, in doing so, suddenly lose sight of the mission you are on, regardless of the circumstances. To this day, whenever I speak about our team, I end with the acknowledgement that we wake up every morning eager to change the world. That mindset is what carries us through everything.

Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

Ah, this is a fun one. When we were first starting to create our own 360° video experiences, there was quite a steep learning curve. The camera is literally recording everything in the environment, so any misstep gets caught on film. As you can imagine, there were all sorts of bloopers.

Pretty early on, I took a trip to Europe and did a few on-location shots in Portugal, Spain and Ireland. In a lot of instances, we had to get pretty creative with how we got access to the more interesting locations. However, in Ireland, I was given the opportunity to get a full behind-the-scenes tour of the famous Guinness Factory. It was very last minute (I found out the night before), and was our first time working with such a big brand.

At that point, I had completely filled our external hard drives, and the transfer time from the camera I had used to my laptop would have taken a full day. So first thing in the morning, I ran to buy fresh memory cards, and since the camera we were using required 6 matching memory cards, I had to coordinate between two stores and found myself running up and down the street to make sure the quantities would work.

I inevitably showed up with the most windblown hair you could imagine, slightly out of breath — not my typical calm, cool and collected self, quickly forcing composure as I waited for the head of marketing to start the private tour. It was a blast! I got to learn the art of the pour, admire some of the hidden gems of the factory and even got to stand behind the counter at the rooftop Gravity Bar and help serve some happily inebriated patrons.

While I showed up as a whirlwind, I left feeling like a rock star and super excited to see the footage. The problem? The whirlwind had already taken its toll. As I mentioned, perhaps the most important thing to account for in 360° videography is the fact that it’s 360°. While I was quite accustomed to finding good hiding places in nature and more closed-off environments, it was a different ballgame in a very public space while including somebody else in the mix who had never filmed in 360°.

This was a new challenge and amidst giving instructions and making sure he was comfortable representing his own brand well, I forgot to hide from the camera to get out of the 360° shot. So I showed up in our virtual Guinness Factory Tour (a few times). Looking back, I was so focused on appearing buttoned up, that I didn’t allow myself a moment to take a step back and say “Do you mind if we restart this shot?” in order to obtain the absolute best content. Lesson definitely learned.

Biggest takeaways? First, we must always be prepared for the unexpected! You never know when an amazing opportunity is going to show up at your doorstep, and it is far better to be over prepared than to have to scramble unexpectedly. Second, do not be afraid to take control of a situation by asking for a minute to think through things. If I had taken an extra moment in each location, I would have not only saved myself some stress, but also would have come across as far more professional and experienced.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of our main focuses at the moment is evolving our product to fit the changing needs of our industry. COVID-19 has obviously had a huge impact on the way senior living communities operate and offer engaging activities for their residents. We are working to not just maintain the life enrichment options at communities, but enhance them as we all start to understand what the ‘new normal’ looks like.

For example, our platform has traditionally been used with a group of people in one shared physical space. Each participant sits down (usually in a circle or semicircle), puts on a VR headset, and is immersed in a synchronized 360° experience. Because they are physically close, they can talk about what they are seeing, experiences they have had that are relevant, how they may be feeling about the scene or activity. Watching people open up and organically start sharing with one another is something that never gets old.

Amidst this pandemic, it is critical that we keep our seniors safe and healthy — and that requires physical distance (which, hey, VR is a great tool for). We immediately incorporated two-way voice communication into our platform. By enabling the microphones built into the hardware (headsets and control tablet), each participant could hear both the experience — imagine the waves on a beach — and the joyful reactions of other participants. This way, each participant could be in their own rooms and still experience the group dynamic during the session.

We also launched Rendever Live, which allows all of our customers to tune in for a session that is run by experts on our team. During this time of crisis, the staff and caregivers that we work with are more overwhelmed and overburdened than ever before. By offering sessions several times a week, we are able to give these amazing folks a few minutes to rest, while also building a deeper sense of community between the Rendever communities around the world.

Most recently, we created The Connection Corner, which is a virtual living room that allows residents to come together and spend loosely structured time, whether chatting about their day or engaging in meaningful conversations about life. Staff are able to customize avatars for each resident, and conversation prompts are available to engage the group. This simple concept is incredibly important amongst this pandemic because older adults have been forbidden from spending physical time with their friends and peers. If they do not happen to live next door to a friend, chances are high they have not seen them since early March. With The Connection Corner, they can visit virtually — which we believe is the next best thing to real, physical connection at any time and especially during the heightened safety necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?

We have been studying loneliness for more than four years. We have led studies, partnered with experts, are regularly asked to speak at events and contribute to cross-industry whitepapers. Perhaps most importantly, we have conversations with caregivers on the front lines — working with one of the most vulnerable populations to loneliness — every day of the week. While the quantitative data is important, the qualitative insights we glean from the staff members who witness the effects of loneliness firsthand while interacting with seniors are what help us maximize the impact of our platform, and hold us accountable to maintaining the customer-centric nature of everything we do.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US, but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?

Of course! The mental health consequences of loneliness, like depression and anxiety, are probably quite obvious. However, as we all know, mental illnesses are hard to measure. You cannot take an x-ray to measure anxiety. So for the sake of this discussion, I will focus on the ways prolonged loneliness can attribute to physical conditions.

  1. 1. High blood pressure and cardiovascular disease: Studies show that lonely people have consistently elevated levels of cortisol, which is a stress hormone that contributes to issues like chronic high blood pressure, hypertension and heart disease. Believe it or not, the CDC reports that loneliness is associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke. (CDC)
  2. Premature cognitive decline: According to the CDC, social isolation is associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia. One hypothesis is that feelings of loneliness “may be considered a manifestation of the deteriorating social skills that are seen as part of the personality change accompanying the process of dementia.” (CDC, Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry)
  3. Increased fall risk: An increase in fall risk is consistently associated with higher levels of social isolation. The two issues are closely intertwined: Lonely people are less likely to ask for help when they need it, and sometimes put themselves at risk when going about daily life. Conversely, if they worry about their fragility or risk of falling, they may decline invitations to social events — which contributes to increased feelings of loneliness and isolation. All in all, a recent meta-analysis found that prolonged loneliness has proven to correlate with a 30% increase in mortality. It is technically classified as an epidemic and, quite notably, studies have found social isolation to be as detrimental to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. This is a health crisis that absolutely must be taken seriously and addressed.

On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?

  1. While we primarily work with the older adult population, no one is immune to social isolation and loneliness. As the world becomes more digital, human interaction is required less and less, and in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic, we have all experienced firsthand how this can impact our mental health.
  2. The current state of the world is putting us all in a position where our access to community has become limited, which is the exact basis of human loneliness. What we see as a result is a vicious cycle in which mental health problems can start to set in and prevent people from finding and accessing the tools and levels of human interaction they need in order to feel better. We have evolved to become highly social creatures, and removing access to society can be tumultuous for any of us.
  3. A lot of research has been done to show our growing dependence on digital forms of connection (e.g. social media), but these are often fueled by dopaminergic responses (e.g. the quick rush of validation from receiving a like on an Instagram post) rather than the oxytocin that drives most real human relationships. It is important to constantly be recognizing the difference between these two experiences, and understand why we must be seeking genuine interpersonal connection that extends beyond the digital screen in order to prevent loneliness and depression.
  4. There is not a magic bullet solution, but what gives me hope is the level of attention this issue is starting to get within mainstream media. The first step to solving any problem is recognizing and articulating the issue, and I believe we as a society are well on our way to doing that — and we’re happy to be a part of leading this conversation!

The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.

It’s true. People are more connected than ever. But there is a big difference between being connected and feeling connected. While it takes seconds to call someone on the other side of the world, it can take years to build trust and a meaningful relationship. I think it is dangerous to equate access to fulfilment.

Social media has changed the game. When we scroll through Instagram, we see images of gourmet meals, luxurious beach views and picture perfect lives. What we do not see is the reality behind those images — a 2nd degree burn from the hot oven, the trash littered along the beach, the stress and anxiety of taking and editing the perfect photograph. There is a lot of research around the effect that social media has had on our society — especially young people today.

The internet has opened up access to information in general. There is no need to think strategically or debate trivia anymore when everyone’s first instinct is to google the answer. It’s a double-edged sword because the democratization of information, education, etc., is incredibly important, but at the same time, it also prevents people from having thoughtful conversations, using logic and learning how to develop interpersonal skills.

Finally, I think we have become overstimulated, inundated and overwhelmed through the modern internet. There is so much of so much available online that it can be difficult to know where to look or who to trust. For example, whenever a family member is diagnosed with any sort of medical problem, I immediately go online and start my research. I can’t imagine anyone googling ‘cancer’ and not becoming overwhelmed.

It is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.

In the beginning, we laid out our core hypothesis that would eventually serve as the basis of everything we do and every decision we make: the foundation of human connection is shared, positive experience. By doing things with others, we build moments that spark conversation, giving us a chance to learn about one another and become increasingly invested in the relationship. For us, the solution to the loneliness epidemic lies in first creating opportunities for these shared experiences, and then motivating individuals to attend by realizing the power of them (which sometimes requires a bit of courage). Along that same line of thinking, any well-structured group activity can help solve the loneliness epidemic. Here are a few examples:

  1. Volunteerism: Pick a cause you care about and go volunteer! Whether you are teaching computer classes at the local senior center or serving at a food kitchen, volunteering is a great way to connect with people that have similar values and passions.
  2. Groups, clubs, sports, music, etc.: Websites like have something for everyone! Search for all of your hobbies and find some extracurricular activities, and commit to keeping yourself engaged and connected.
  3. Join a gym or workout group: What better way to improve mood than a surge of endorphins and new friendship? The added benefit of accountability will help build stronger connections with new acquaintances.
  4. Commit to communication: It is not only important to build new relationships, but also maintain and strengthen relationships. For my New Year’s resolution a few years ago, I committed to calling an old friend once a week. Each week I would think about people I have not caught up with in a while and then give them a call while commuting home from work. It was an amazing exercise and something I still practice today.
  5. Journaling and notes of affirmation: For me, loneliness can be an isolating cycle. If I am lonely and sad, I am less likely to reach out to my support system to ask for help. I find that journaling helps me clear my mind and leaving positive notes around my space are helpful to remind me that the lonely times will pass (and they will pass more quickly if I call a friend or relative!).
  6. Find Experiences & Use Technology: Seek out virtual experiences to participate in with friends and family — staying connected by exploring the world in VR can be a great way to learn and stay in touch, especially during times where physical distancing is required.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I recently had a conversation with someone in my inner circle where we took the time to identify our own superpowers and how we want to use them. During that conversation, I realized that, more than anything else, I identify most closely with the power and practice of empathy. To me, intentional empathy relies on a combination of some of the most empowering interpersonal skills — open communication, active reflection, tailored support, ascertained presence — and research is finding a bidirectional relationship between the experience of empathy and the release of oxytocin (which has an entirely different array of benefits that are definitely worth reading about).

All around, empathy is incredibly impactful… both in the moment, and through inspiring the development of more altruistic behavioral tendencies longer-term. If we take a step back and really look at many of the world’s problems, they boil down to a lack of many of these skills and a withholding of proactive understanding, both solvable through the practice of empathy. I would love to create a movement focused on inspiring the incorporation of this practice in active daily life, and always believe the best way to do so is through leading by example.

Clearly, I see the challenges created throughout the aging process as a huge opportunity to practice empathy, and through this, connect with an incredibly important and often overlooked demographic. The stigma around aging is just heartbreaking, and I believe we have the opportunity to restore respect and admiration of older adults. When we look at other cultures around the world, there is much more intergenerational living; elders are revered in family structures and their wisdom is highly valued. In our country, older adults are too often neglected, disrespected and frankly ignored. As a society, we need to remember: people do not lose value as they get older! I would never want to see that happen to a loved one and I definitely do not want that to happen to me in the future. The aging process can be a beautiful thing, but the world seems to be more focused on reducing wrinkles and covering grey hair than enabling our older relatives to learn, grow and enjoy life alongside of us.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

There are honestly dozens of people I would love to have a private meal with, so this is a tough question. With where the world is right now, and where I am in my own life, I would have to say that I would — hands down — love to have breakfast with Melinda Gates.

First of all, we are both Duke grads, which automatically makes us potential best friends. More importantly, she is a definite hero of mine. The work she leads across the Gates Foundation is marvelous, and the alignment of her personal life with her professional career is nothing short of admirable. She is someone who I believe found a form of her calling early on in life, and proactively evolved that into living one of the most fulfilling lives imaginable through her global humanitarian and philanthropic work.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

We’re on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram — we hope you’ll follow and join us on this journey!

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