Older Adults Get Wired with Virtual Senior Center

by Nicole Bruce

Studies have shown that seniors who engage with technology have higher self-esteem and greater social interaction compared with those who don’t. However, many find it difficult to do so because of limited finances or learning options, impaired vision, hearing, cognition or manual dexterity, and privacy concerns or other fears.

The Virtual Senior Center is an innovative, new CJE program based on the demonstration project made possible by a partnership between Self help Community Services in New York, Microsoft, the New York City Department for the Aging (DFTA), Department of Information Technology and  Telecommunications (DoITT) and Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). Through the technology of interactive web-based classes and events, it aims to enhance the lives of homebound older adults through socialization, learning and civic engagement. Self help invited CJE and two other senior organizations in Washington, D.C. and San Diego to partner in order to test it.

With their computers, participants can join an interactive class in which they can participate as if they are physically present. Uponjoining the group, the instructorb in a large window on the screen greets them. Participants, who join remotely, are shown in smaller video windows across the bottom of the computer screen with their names underneath. “The computer is voice activated, so the video image of the speaker will grow larger so people can see him or her better,” says Gerri Fiterman-Persin, CJE’s Center for Healthy Living Manager. Participants can also connect to family, friends, and the community through email, Skype, Facebook and Internet news.

CJE will produce its own programs in which homebound seniors can participate. CJE’s Center for Healthy Living will offer live classes, such as A Matter of Balance, Take Charge of Your Health, Total Memory Workout, Healthy Eating, etc. Participants will also have access to CJE classes from sites at the Bernard Horwich JCC, Weinberg Community for Senior Living, and Adult Day Services in Evanston, including music and nutrition classes, museum lectures and news discussion groups.

CJE participants will have access to the classes offered from the partner centers in New York, Chicago, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. and vice versa. “Our goal is to bring isolated older adults back into the fold of the community by offering them the opportunity to participate virtually in educational and social programs,” says Fiterman-Persin.

The computer provides a secure network and easy web navigation, using text, color and graphics to create easily identifiable Internet pathways, making browsing more intuitive for seniors. “New users or those with low-vision should not hold back. The senior-friendly interface is very easy, already configured with participant names. As soon as it’s turned on, they can start. The touch screen is also configured for a more user- friendly three-finger touch instead of the typical one-finger touch, which is known to frustrate those with low dexterity,” says Fiterman-Persin. And each participant will work with a volunteer ‘tech buddy’ if issues do arise.

To participate, one must have an interest in using the Virtual Senior Center computer for a minimum of 30 hours per month over a six month period. “We want to involve older adults who might not have had the opportunity to use a computer before, and those who are stuck at home due to physical challenges. We’re also looking at caregivers, who might be isolated as the result of caring for a loved one,” says Fiterman-Persin. Social engagement is especially important for older adults, particularly those who depend on remote family members for support or who are going through life transitions such as the loss of a spouse. The potential benefits of the Virtual Senior Center are numerous: increased socialization, decreased depression, opportunities for continued education and brain health and a sense of purpose, all while gaining new skills.

To find out more about the Virtual Senior Center initiative, please call 773.508.1134 or email Kathleen.Fischer@cje.net (link sends e-mail).