Pilot program offers online classes for homebound seniors

The state’s Office for the Aging is partnering with the Association on Aging in New York and Selfhelp Community Services to bring Selfhelp’s Virtual Senior Center into the homes of elderly New Yorkers to improve connectivity, combat social isolation, and improve health and wellness.

Loneliness and isolation among older adults was a public health problem before COVID-19, and the pandemic made that worse as people stayed home, according to a press release on the program. This resulted in a significant loss of community connectedness.

People who are isolated and lonely, the release said, have a 59-percent higher risk of physical and mental health decline and have a 64-percent higher risk of dementia.

“In an effort to remain safe and slow the spread of the virus, many older New Yorkers gave up their connections to friends, family, and community,” said Greg Olsen, Director of the New York State Office for the Aging, in a statement. “Technological solutions to improve connectivity and combat isolation and loneliness are critical tools in the tool box and are here to stay.”

The Virtual Senior Center uses internet-connected computers and tablets to provide face-to-face, real-time interaction for isolated older adults, engaging them in cultural events and other online activities that create a vibrant social community.

By joining the Selfhelp VSC, organizations can leverage the content and experience developed over 10 years while also having the opportunity of bringing their local programming to the online community.

VSC activities take place daily, year-round. Participants can log into the VSC whenever they choose, review the calendar of activities, and join whatever interests them. Each day, the program makes available interactive online classes, facilitated by trained volunteers, available in English, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, and Korean, and includes a substantial health curriculum.

The VSC has several hundred facilitators living in 10 states and five countries — the United States, Trinidad, Australia, Brazil, and Israel. Eighty-nine facilitators live in the New York City area. There are doctors, nurses, dentists, lawyers, educators, computer technicians, musicians, authors, nutritionists, physical trainers, social workers, teaching artists, professional organizers, firefighters, scientists, and spiritual leaders.

The VSC has established partnerships with museums, hospitals, and universities, all of which contribute content. Live virtual museum tours are a favorite of users, as are holiday celebrations and other special events. 

 Independent evaluation, the press release said, found that Selfhelp’s VSC reduced loneliness by 80 percent, increased connectedness by 60 percent, and increased self-reported health status (well-being) by 51 percent.

Ninety-seven percent of participants said the VSC improved the quality of their life. Participants have reported they appreciate how attending live and online classes reduced their social isolation and loneliness and increased their social network.

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