Virtually Connected and Loving It

by Nicole Bruce

CJE’s new Virtual Senior Center lets the good vibes flow both ways — to participants and volunteers alike

Earlier this year, CJE began collaborating with Selfhelp Community Services in New York on an innovative, new Virtual Senior Center (VSC) program to bring interactive web-based classes and a means of socialization through technology to isolated older adults in Chicago communities. In addition to taking part in a variety of discussion groups and classes virtually, participants are also able to learn how to navigate the web and connect to family and friends through email, Skype, Facebook, games, the news, and much more—all from their homes through senior-friendly, touch screen computers.

CJE has since developed its own virtual classes in addition to those already taking place in New York, which participants in Chicago can join through the computers provided by CJE and Selfhelp.

Older adults are now participating from their homes in various Chicago neighborhoods and volunteer Tech Buddies are assisting seniors with their questions. Classes previously only available to those physically present at CJE locations have been broadcast to this new group of older adults, our virtual pioneers!

We touched base with a couple VSC participants, a volunteer Tech Buddy, and a class facilitator to discover more about the pilot program’s launch, and each offered their unique perspectives.

Side by Side: Learning with a Tech Buddy

Seniors who engage with technology have higher self-esteem and greater social interaction than those who don’t. VSC participant Bonnie K. describes how she used to feel left out when people discussed technology, such as emailing, “I felt like my immigrant parents felt when they came to America at Ellis Island and didn’t speak the language. It was kind of like, ‘All of you are talking, but I’m not part of that, and I don’t like to be way out there.’”

Bonnie has been paired with a volunteer Tech Buddy to help her adjust to the computer. “(CJE) provided a Tech Buddy, who is knowledgeable and kind, and always available. He seems to have endless patience, which is great. Everything about [the VSC] has been easy as pie. I’m talking about someone like myself who couldn’t grasp it at all,” says Bonnie.

Bonnie’s Tech Buddy, Lee Guggenheim, who recently retired from teaching a computer-based program through Waukegan High School, heard about the VSC program through a member of his synagogue. “I think the program has tremendous potential because it opens a window to seniors that they may not have had otherwise. This portal can be stimulating, intellectual, beneficial and fun,” says Lee.

Bonnie was introduced to the program through Lee and is beginning to gain a better understanding of the technology. “I feel like I’m part of what’s going on now. I’m just so grateful. It’s just an amazing, interactive kind of a tool,” says Bonnie.

Lee attributes Bonnie’s openness to the VSC program as the reason she is now comfortable and excited to use the computer, “Working with Bonnie has been easy because she is open to the concept of learning. She’s over the fear of breaking something because the program will not let her do anything wrong. She’s willing to attempt new things and see where she can go,” says Lee. “I’m available, and I think that’s part of the comfort level. They know there is someone who can hold their hand, if necessary.”

“I think it’s an amazing thing that (CJE) is doing by bringing this into someone’s home and teaching you. It’s not just a piece of equipment. You’re taking me by the hand like I’m a young child learning to walk, and you’re not critical if I fall down and you’re not pushy about not going fast enough. That’s an amazing sense of security and a real encouragement,” says Bonnie.

The Classroom Experience In and Out

Retired Chicago Public Schools teacher Les Mitnick had already been teaching a CJE-sponsored music class for older adults before  he was asked to teach a class through the VSC program. “There’s a lot of apprehension of technology
out there, but it’s here. I myself didn’t think I was going to be terribly successful, and everyone around CJE really boosted my self-confidence,” says Les.

For another VSC program participant, Iris B., the learning experience doesn’t get any better than through the VSC program, “If I was not involved with the Virtual Senior Center, I would not be participating in the kinds of classes that I’m participating in now,” says Iris. “I’m sure you can go somewhere and Google a basic computer class, but it’s not interactive. It’s not personal. That’s the advantage of the VSC. You are personal with the instructor and with the students. It’s the next best thing to actually sitting there in the classroom.”

Iris has enjoyed the “Music with Les” class: “Music takes me places, and a particular piece by Schubert that he played on the keyboard just made me feel like I was traveling. I simply closed my eyes and pretended that I was going on a train to Europe enjoying a cup of coffee and a scone.”

Part of the VSC class experience is contingent upon the instructors’ understanding of their older audience, compassion and adaptability. “When you’re working with seniors it’s so important to have people around you who understand you, who don’t shy away from you or feel that you’re too old to understand what one plus two is,” notes Iris. “But (CJE) made me feel loved and they made me feel welcome. The classes give me something to look forward to every week. There’s just so much that is out there that you can take advantage of if you’re willing to do it. This program needs to continue for our seniors because we need it.”

“It’s going to be a growing experience for them the same as it’s going to be a growing experience for me,” says Les. “Now that I really know what the program is about, having walked through teaching a class virtually, I think this is a fabulous program. I am really happy to be able to enrich lives and to share my love and my joy of music with other people, and to bring it into their own homes. It’s a wonderful experience.”

A Whole New World

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. VSC participants increase socialization with a sense of purpose while gaining new skills.

Through his experiences as a Tech Buddy guiding VSC participants and as a retiree, Lee has observed that the way we enrich our own lives changes as we age. “As we get older, and I’m a prime example through retirement, our availability to interesting stimuli changes, and we have to change with it. So with computerization and the way [seniors] can communicate with other people, agencies, and programs, I think it’s going to add quality of life to people as they mature.”

The program offers mental stimulation and involvement for older adults who may not have access to technology or the ability to travel outside of their home, or for those who possibly don’t have as much stimulation from other family members who are understandably busy with their own lives. “I think it’s opened up all sorts of possibilities. I don’t have to worry about how I have to get there. It’s right there,” says Bonnie.

For many VSC participants, the  program offers a new means of making friends. “Even if we’re only looking at each other through the computer screen, the friendships, are nice. I’m not the only one to not know how to do this. We’re all learning it together,” says Bonnie. “My hope is that this program will expand so many others across the country will have this opportunity.” “I’ve always been a believer that there are things you can do to keep yourself from being lonely, and certainly being involved in these classes is one of the great things that helps combat that,” says Iris.

Iris has not only made connections through seeing familiar faces everyday in the classes, but she has also reached out through the popular social network, Facebook. “I worked with a lot of children at Evanston schools over 23 years, and it’s been a real blessing to reconnect with my former students through Facebook. I’m connected to over 60 of them now, ranging in age from 15 to 35.”

Both Bonnie and Iris are eager to learn how to Skype with friends and family. “I’m really looking forward to learning how to use Skype. My grandsons are in California, and I see pictures of them on Facebook, but it seems like they’re getting bigger every year. I look forward to being able to see them and also my son and daughter-in-law,” says Iris.

Lee notes that speaking to an older loved one through the camera offers both family and professionals a new portal for observing and monitoring their health and well- being. “The advantage of the  amera situation is not just oral, it’s visual. So much of what the counselor or nurse is looking for is how the seniors look when they’re answering something or how they look physically in general. Is there a sparkle in the eye? Is there a smile on the face? Is there depression?

This can be viewed one-on-one or through a camera, but cannot be viewed through a telephone or through a text message,” says Lee. “So the ability to be of use andassistance to the senior changes radically.”

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2013-2014 issue of LIFE, CJE SeniorLife's quarterly magazine.