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The Online Classes That Help the Homebound Connect

Friendships form easily over video chat at the Virtual Senior Center

Part of the Artful Aging Special Report

Rose Binder, 93, of Queens, N.Y., is homebound. She has no stores in her neighborhood, and taking an accessible taxi service makes her “very nervous,” she says. “Sometimes they come late or they don’t show up and I have to keep calling.” Even speaking on the telephone is difficult for her.

For many people in her position, life would be lonely and isolating. But thanks to something called a Virtual Senior Center, operated by the nonprofit Selfhelp Community Services, Binder’s time is filled with intellectual and cultural riches. Moreover, she has the chance to make friends and to regularly chat with them face-to-face — all from the comfort of her home.

Each week, the Virtual Senior Center offers some 30 online classes to homebound clients, from tai chi and exercise to contemporary history discussions and gallery talks with museum curators, as well as music appreciation and singing — even Mandarin. Participants use a simple touch-screen computer to join in, as well as to Skype, play games or use the Internet.

Technology to Alleviate Loneliness and Depression

Selfhelp partnered with Microsoft and the City of New York to develop the center. “The whole point is to marry technology with homebound seniors, to alleviate loneliness and depression,” explains Carmella Chessen, Selfhelp’s outreach/volunteer coordinator. “We want them to join four classes a week as a minimum. They have to want to be social and to learn the computer.” They also cannot have cognitive issues, she adds.

The program serves more than 200 people, with an average age of mid-80s, although one participant is 100. More than half are in New York, with others connected through partner organizations in Chicago and Baltimore.
“I especially like any classes that give you information like history, art or museums, so I try to do as many as I can,” says Binder. “But unfortunately I have to eat lunch and I skip something. Where else can you get such a wonderful array of classes without going to class?”

“You have company and you don’t feel like you are isolated. I have my family, but still I have to spend a lot of time by myself.”

— Amanda Fajardo, student

Another participant, Amanda Fajardo, 83, especially enjoys the music classes and the opera. “We always learn something new,” she says.

Fajardo became involved with the Virtual Senior Center after her husband died two years ago. “I was alone and they offered me the program and they helped me a lot,” she says. “You have company and you don’t feel like you are isolated. I have my family, but still I have to spend a lot of time by myself.”

Research has found that loneliness contributes to many physical ills, among them heart disease, poor immunity and Alzheimer’s. To help counter loneliness, the Virtual Senior Center is all about participation and relationships. Unlike other distance learning where people often sit anonymously at their computer screens, participants engage here not only with the instructor but with each other, and friendships form.

Like a Gallery Talk From Home

“I was interested in duplicating the experience you have when you attend a gallery talk,” says instructor Nelly Silagy Benedek, director of education at The Jewish Museum. “It’s interactive, you make eye contact — with most online learning classes, you lose that. With this, it’s a limited number of students, you can talk with them, you can really get to know them.”

Using a video chat system, each participant appears on the screen and conversations are in real time. Participants may choose to mute themselves, be invisible, or click on a big yellow hand icon to be called upon — although people often jump in with comments.

In a recent class, Benedek engaged participants by asking them to compare and contrast pieces of art now showing in an eclectic exhibit at her museum, called Unorthodox. She drew their attention to aspects of light, color and composition, soliciting their thoughts.

“I was definitely not sure what to expect at the beginning because I wasn’t sure if I could create that one-on-one connection in a virtual space and I was a little bit concerned I’d just be lecturing,” Benedek says. “But they’re very comfortable with each other and with expressing their opinions.”

Making a Personal Connection

In one class, Benedek was showing a work of art that depicted a Hasidic Jewish man wearing a traditional fur hat called a shtreimel. “One gentleman said, ‘just a minute,’ and he came back with an old faded picture of himself as a young man wearing a shtreimel — it was pretty incredible,” she says. “He was able to make that personal connection and share his experience with everybody. The participants often talk about their own personal experiences, which is often touching.”

In addition to The Jewish Museum, Chessen has formed partnerships with The Museum of Modern Art, The New York Historical Society and others to offer high-quality classes.

Joe Margolin, who teaches a lively contemporary history class, says “this is one of the most intellectually challenging activities that I’ve ever done in my life,” because he’s hit with so many interesting viewpoints. “It’s probably one of the things that’s keeping my cerebellum and cerebrum going.”

A recent discussion he led on the history and arcane rules of the political party nominating process was punctuated with laughter. “I’m not exaggerating when I say most of us have become friends,” Margolin said, and then added jokingly: “Janice and I are considering getting engaged.”

“You’re making me jealous,” piped up another woman.

Eyewitness Schmooze

At the end of the class, participants reflected on why they appreciate the Virtual Senior Center. “I’ve never been to college,” Patti, one of the younger students, said. “For me, it’s a great opportunity to learn because many of our participants were there during the Roosevelt years and World War II, so I’ve learned a tremendous amount from people who were eyewitnesses.”

“We all respect each other’s views and opinions,” added James, another participant. “And we care about each other. If someone is absent, we want to know why.”

For these participants, the Virtual Senior Center, supported by grant money, is free. To move toward a more sustainable financial footing and to make the center more widely available, Selfhelp now offers it to others who are homebound, for a fee. Tuition for an unlimited number of classes is $60 a month, in addition to the computer ($575), set-up and training and high-speed Internet charges; participants may use their own computer if it has a web cam and meets other specifications. (I was able to sit in on a class using my five-year-old Macbook laptop.)

Technology That Empowers

The Virtual Senior Center is one of many innovative ways that Selfhelp supports the well being of its clients. The organization was established some 80 years ago to assist Nazi holocaust survivors who came to the United States. Thirty years ago, the group expanded its services to low- and moderate-income older adults in New York City and Long Island.

“We believe in independent living with services, if and when [people] need them,” says CEO Stuart C. Kaplan, “so it creates dignity and independence for the individual and keeps the cost of care at a minimal level.” Selfhelp operates six senior centers (in addition to the virtual one), six housing complexes, four naturally occurring retirement communities (NORCs), an Alzheimer’s support program, home care, case management and other services.

In apartment complexes with Selfhelp, health kiosks in the lobbies let residents monitor their vital signs, which helps them better manage chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure.

Residents also use Skype to connect virtually with social workers, who stay on top of their emerging problems. “That contact is much better than a phone call — seeing somebody, how they’re dressed, what their demeanor is,” says Kaplan. Through this technology, residents may be visited weekly, rather than every two or three months.

Fundamental to Selfhelp’s philosophy is that older people need to stay connected to the wider world. “To that end, utilizing our technologies, we work with schools, museums, churches and synagogues and bring all those activities and age groups, to our seniors, if they cannot get there any other way.”

As for the Virtual Senior Center, Kaplan says, “The response has been absolutely remarkable.”

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