Older adults who rely on others for their physical and emotional well-being are staying connected using the same technology keeping their grandchildren in school. Virtual programming is filling a gaping hole in their support systems now that they cannot leave their homes or have visitors. The learning curve can be steep—but programs like the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, New Jersey and the JCC MetroWest in West Orange, New Jersey are meeting the challenge.
“If you had asked me three months ago about doing programs on Zoom, I would have said ‘absolutely not,’” said Judith Nahary, director of senior adult services at the Kaplen JCC. But with the help of the seniors’ caregivers, over 100 seniors are now virtually continuing the daily classes they enjoy.
The Adult Services Center has programs for active retirees and those with varying stages of dementia, and for their caregivers. To transition into virtual programming, Judith Nahary, director of senior adult services, polled people in the program to assess who had the capability to participate and whether or not they had access to the internet and devices. When the center was open, an iPad lab was available. Now they have given 10 iPads to seniors and are looking at how to acquire more. “We are always looking for ways to keep seniors engaged and in their own homes,” said Nahary, who emphasized that isolation for seniors has negative health consequences, and their caregivers need some respite to prevent burnout. The center continues to deliver meals and makes phone calls to check in on participants, many who live alone.
Two months ago, Nahary put together a virtual platform of classes including concerts, chair exercise, bingo, art gallery tours, and support groups for caregivers. The programs are open to all seniors coming to the center, no matter their abilities.
A few weeks later, the center opened some virtual activities like daily exercise to anyone who wanted to join. Thursday is community day when all programs are open. The selections, with days and times, are listed at https://www.jccotp.org/virtual-seniors. Clicking on an activity opens the Zoom event. Seniors can exercise, listen to a concert or play bingo. Caregivers can join a support group on Monday, Wednesday or Thursday. During the year the center has clubs with different activities for registered participants with dementia and many, such as the memory café and drawing, are continuing virtually. Fees have been canceled while the programs are virtual, with help from a grant and donations, many from grateful families.
“This is the only way we can help our seniors,” said Marlene Ceragno, program and caregiver support services coordinator. “We want to spread the word far and wide.” She sends out a daily email with suggested activities and links to virtual tours. Anyone who would like to be on that mailing list can contact [email protected]
Nahary added that while 100 seniors are attending virtual programs, over 400 had been coming to the center, and she would like everyone to know that they can still come to the JCC senior center virtually.
Nahary is getting notes from families appreciative that the programs are still running. “These JCC Senior Club classes have been so therapeutic for my mom,” wrote one grateful daughter. “The COVID quarantine has made her more disoriented to places and people. She does remember the 10 a.m. classes and that sets a structure and routine through the day! The face recognition and social engagement has helped maintain her cognitive function. The exercise classes keep her moving and the puzzles and other classes make her think; but more importantly we see her laughing and smiling every day.”
The JCC takes advantage of having many groups under its roof and brings them together. The seniors and nursery school combine with a “grandfriends program,” in which a senior and nursery school student do activities together. Now they are having virtual reading sessions. At the other end of the age scale, the high schoolers at The Idea School have paired with seniors in a philanthropy project. Funded through combining a grant to the senior center with a grant to the Idea School, the students and seniors had been meeting every other week to identify, visit and discuss organizations to be the recipient of an award. Those discussions are continuing virtually and the winning organization will be announced in the next few weeks.
As soon as the JCC MetroWest closed due to the pandemic, the staff at the adult center met to create a plan with virtual programs that would keep seniors connected. Sharon Gordon, chief program officer, said, “Our staff has stepped up; they are so committed. We love our seniors and want to make this time as painless as possible.”
The seniors have a Zoom call twice a week on different topics. Around Passover, the group reminisced about celebrating the holiday in years past. Other Zoom classes include film and book discussion groups, and a parshat hashavua class. Gina Goldman, director of the center for adult enrichment, sends out emails with suggestions for activities and links to resources. To get on the mailing list, contact [email protected]
The staff stays in touch with the families, and works with Federation volunteers who help make calls to check in. “We are trying to keep in contact (with seniors) in a variety of ways,” Gordon said. “We want to ensure that ones who weren’t frail when they left don’t come back frail.”
The notes they receive attest to their success. “Just a note to let you know how much I appreciate the efforts you’ve made to help us all through this difficult isolating time,” wrote a participant. “You’ve provided such a variety of opportunities to keep up our spirits, both emotional and spiritual.”
By Bracha Schwartz