Virtual Senior Center brings social independence, ‘community of friendship’

Virtual Senior Center brings social independence, ‘community of friendship’

Doris Shankman is 91 years old and still living on her own in an apartment in New York. But because she uses a walker, getting out to cultural events and classes is difficult.

Shankman was feeling socially isolated until about a year ago, when she was introduced to the Virtual Senior Center, a Web-based, touchscreen platform that allows her to interact via virtual groups and field trips, social activities, classes and games.

Thanks to a grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, the Virtual Senior Center soon will be arriving in Pittsburgh, helping those who are homebound to become more socially and intellectually engaged.

The new technology has changed her life, said Shankman, who uses her touch-screen not only to tour museums and attend musical performances, but also to participate in a variety of classes in real time, which has allowed her to form relationships with other homebound seniors.

“You get to see a lot of the same people, and in a way, you become friends,” Shankman said. “It’s a very useful part of my life. I am a social person, and I was always involved in several organizations. I just can’t do what I did in the past. The socialization aspect is very important.”

JHF has committed to provide up to $240,000 for the Virtual Senior Center in 2016 and 2017 and will remain closely involved in the development and expansion of the platform locally, according to Karen Wolk Feinstein, JHF president and CEO.

“We’re pretty excited about this,” Feinstein said. “It’s incredible.”

The Virtual Senior Center was developed by Selfhelp, a nonprofit organization — originally founded to support Holocaust survivors — dedicated to preserving the independence of seniors. The platform has been up and running since 2013 and has proven effective in New York, on Long Island, in Chicago, Baltimore and San Diego. In total, the Virtual Senior Center serves about 250 seniors.

JHF is working in partnership with Selfhelp and the Jewish Association on Aging (JAA), and plans to conduct a pilot program with approximately 100 Virtual Senior Center participants in common areas and individual units in assisted living, rehabilitation and personal care facilities in the coming year.

The technology is user-friendly, according to David Dring, the executive director of Selfhelp Innovations, a department of Selfhelp.

“We’ve spent a lot of time developing a touchscreen that is very easy to use,” Dring said. “There is no keyboard and no mouse. When you turn on the device, a special interface comes on as the home page, with a calendar and ‘today’s schedule.’”

The technology, he said, is completely intuitive; a senior can be trained to use it and be participating in a class within two hours.

The video chat environment — which uses Web camera technology — provides users access to museum tours, historical society lectures, book clubs and up to 35 different classes on a variety of topics each week. There are up to 20 people in a classroom. Most options are available on a national basis, with specifically local programming offered as well.

“We are creating a community of friendship,” Dring said. “People think that this is transformative. They really appreciate the opportunity to connect with other people their own age. These are people who were kind of bored to tears, and now they have a sense of purpose, something to look forward to.”

That has most definitely been the case for Shankman.

“This has been a tremendous help in terms of socialization,” she said. “It has added a great deal to my life. I look forward to it every day.”

The Pittsburgh pilot, which will be launched in the coming year, will engage the JAA’s AgeWell Pittsburgh partners, according to Feinstein.

“When we saw this, we said this is just such an answer to those who are homebound, seniors as well as those who are disabled,” she said.

There are approximately 211,000 older adults over the age of 65 in Allegheny County, and about 35,000 of those seniors are at risk for becoming isolated, according to statistics provided by the JHF.

With the increase in the senior population, the JHF is hoping to provide assistance to those who wish to stay in their homes rather than move to institutional living, Feinstein said.

Being alone in one’s home does not need to mean isolation, she stressed.

While the Virtual Senior Center in Pittsburgh is still in its very early planning stage, Feinstein envisions that local offerings could include Osher Lifelong Learning classes and religious services in addition to cultural events and clubs.

JHF also will seek to develop partnerships with cultural institutions, such as the Carnegie Museums, Heinz History Center and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, to increase the breadth of content available to seniors.

“We see this as a form of civic engagement,” she said.

The programming offered would be limited “only by our imaginations,” said Nancy Zionts, COO and chief program officer at JHF, who is working with Dring in bringing the Virtual Senior Center to Pittsburgh.

In addition to providing socialization for those who are homebound, the Virtual Senior Center could also provide engagement for those caregivers who feel isolated as well, according to Zionts.

“Imagine that you are de facto homebound, taking care of a spouse or a sibling or an adult child,” she said. “This will give you the ability to maintain a connection or even to be a contributor [running] a program.”

Pilot participants in Pittsburgh have not yet been selected, Zionts said, but outreach will begin through the JAA.

The JHF also plans to develop a coalition of organizations such as the United Way, Allegheny Area Agency on Aging and Carnegie Mellon University’s Quality of Life Technology Center to expand the Virtual Senior Center’s reach in the Pittsburgh region.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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