As quarantine restrictions begin to lighten, many of us are happily enjoying outdoor socially distanced gatherings, feeling more comfortable at stores, and resuming a life with a glimmer of normalcy. For millions of older Americans, however, life will not become easier. American seniors have been asked to quarantine, and stay quarantined at all costs. This group will be the last to re-enter society, most likely until well after a safe vaccine has been introduced. While this protocol ensures their physical health and safety on a very basic level, their mental wellbeing has been catastrophically impacted.
The reality is that social isolation has a far-reaching impact which ripples across a person’s entire life, and often on the lives of those closest to them. When a person experiences pervasive loneliness, health problems increase, depression rates skyrocket, and many begin to turn to suicidal thoughts.
Combating social isolation amongst the elderly has become a phenomenal problem that family and healthcare workers have had to face. Those who are unable to utilize smart phones or computers are left out of feeling the very basic, but essential, human need for connection. Issues such as depression, anxiety, or posttraumatic stress disorder are only exacerbated by vigilant news watching and phone calls of people they know passing away. So the question remains, how do we help protect our loved ones while making them feel included?
As a geriatric social worker in the Holocaust Services Department at Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey (JFSCNJ), social isolation has been on my radar for many years. As the devastating impact of COVID19 began to unfold in front of us, I felt helpless on how to best serve this special group of people. Together with a team of social workers at JFSCNJ, we spent weeks wrapping our heads around every possible solution. Tablets with a mobile hotspot? Smart phones? How could we even teach them how to use these sophisticated devices? How could we fund these expensive options?
Fortunately, we became introduced to an Israeli- developed product called Uniper Care Technologies. Uniper is an assistive technology device specifically designed for senior use. It comes with a small camera that can be installed on any TV with an HDM1 cable. The beauty of this product is that seniors can join in on Uniper or JFS- sponsored live programs, access a virtual library on a wide variety of subjects, video call, and picture share with family and friends- all through the TV. Clients have called it “Life Changing.”
We are proud to announce that Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey has been awarded funding to create The Ross Family Virtual Senior Center. As of this writing, the program is currently installed in 25 homes with plans to have over 100 clients using the program in the next few weeks due to the generosity of the following funders:
The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany
The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ – Global Connections
JFNA Critical Supports
The Lavy House Senior Resource Center
Merck-Neighbor of Choice (For Alzheimer’s Clients)
The Ross Family
The Sobel Family Supporting Foundation
The Union County Division on Aging
While the program was originally piloted for Holocaust Survivors, it has now been extended to the wider community including those who speak Russian, Yiddish, Spanish, and Hebrew, those who are low income, and to our clients with Alzheimer’s/Dementia. Live activities that were once held in our office, such as the Memory Café and Coffee House programs (for caregivers and their loved ones who have Alzheimer’s Disease), and Café Europa program (social programs for Holocaust Survivors) will now be virtual. Through the Ross Family Virtual Senior Center, homebound elderly will be able to easily call and video chat with friends, family and the staff at JFSCNJ.
Contact Carlos Herrera at [email protected] or (908)352-8375, to find out if you are eligible for the Ross Family Virtual Senior Center. A private pay option is also available.
Alyssa Reiner, MSW, LSW, RYT200 is a geriatric social worker at Jewish Family Service of Central NJ (JFSCNJ).