Elders are Zooming to rekindle friendships

KEN SCHOEN, ELDERLY Services activities coordinator, has worked with his team to create a virtual Project Independence that takes place over the video-conferencing platform Zoom.

One thing I have learned is, never underestimate the will of older folks when it comes to using technology. We’ve got 90-year-olds who don’t need our help.
— Ted Davis

MIDDLEBURY — For most people, the extreme isolation imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic is something new. But for stay-at-home seniors in Addison County, loneliness can be an almost constant companion. 
That’s why Elderly Services Inc.’s Project Independence senior daycare service has been so important to older citizens starving for stimulating discussion, mental exercise and simply the presence of other people.
So when the coronavirus forced Project Independence (PI) to close its doors on March 17, it also shuttered many seniors’ view of the outside world.
Until recently.
Thanks to dedicated Elderly Services staff, and technical and volunteer help, 150 area seniors once again have access to PI programming — albeit through home computer screens. 
Like area schools, companies and municipal boards, Elderly Services has elected to communicate with its clients online. In this case, it’s through Zoom, which allows seniors to enjoy from afar PI’s diverse offerings, including exercise classes, slide shows, musical performances and even tours of local sites. For example, PI participants were recently transported to a nearby apiary.
“Right after we closed, we immediately went into overdrive to figure out what we were going to do to engage (PI) participants,” Ken Schoen, Elderly Services activities coordinator, said during a Monday Zoom interview.
It began with phone calls. Elderly Services staff split into teams to make sure each PI participant received a phone call at least twice per week. So the organization was able to provide participants with at least some personal interaction, while also discerning any special needs they might have. Staff nurses and social workers also checked in with participants in need of help.
After a while, Schoen wanted to take the communication to a different level.
“I started thinking that we need to find a way to use screens and media,” he said, while acknowledging that “often, elderly folks are the least committed to screens and have the most difficult time with them.”
Elderly Services officials surveyed PI participants to see how many would be willing to get programming through Zoom, thus allowing them to communicate with — and see — each other and actively participate in offerings.
Schoen combed through the survey responses and “was pretty sure we could get up to 80 participants Zooming over a period of time.”
With enough declared support, Schoen and a handful of Elderly Services staff with computer experience began laying the groundwork for a “virtual PI.” They made sure seniors had a computer and support (if they needed it) at their end.
For those without a relative or caregiver to assist them, Elderly Services created a manual with simple “how-to” instructions on how to connect to Zoom. Staff emailed convenient links to make connection even easier. Each online event has a host, an activity leader and two Zoom “escorts” to help seniors navigate.
It’s been a rousing success.
“No matter what their ability was cognitively — even with dementia, Alzheimer’s — they were glued to the screen,” Schoen said.
“(Participants) loved seeing each other again.”
Thanks to a lot of hard work, Elderly Services has created an online PI program with three activities per day, five days per week, offered through Zoom. There are currently 56 participants zooming in for a wide range of activities, including morning chats, PowerPoints, exercise classes, baking, musical performances, and virtual visits to interesting places.
Last week, 19 seniors and six staffers Zoomed to a beekeeper’s property in Brandon.
On Monday, seniors took a trip to Morocco, courtesy of Sibylle Saunders, who shared her experiences in that North African nation.
Each activity draws 10-15 elderly Zoomers, according to Schoen.
“Caregivers, family members, and participants are very thankful and excited about this new way of connecting,” Schoen said. “The release of oxytocin in staff, volunteers, and our elderly participants is notable.  The Zooming is filling the need for connection, socialization, reducing loneliness, anxiety and depression.”

At this point, Elderly Services isn’t charging for the virtual PI experience. Organizers believe a fee could be charged in the future, as Elderly Services — like most nonprofits — is experiencing a revenue decline as a result of the pandemic.
Schoen gave thanks to several partners that are helping Elderly Services with the virtual PI. Among them: The Vermont Folklife Center and Middlebury’s Ilsley Public Library.
Renee Ursitti is Ilsley’s adult services and circulation librarian. She has long enjoyed reading to PI participants in person. For now, she’s doing it virtually. So far she’s done two of the virtual reading sessions, which are aimed at sparking socialization and conversation.
“Both sessions I’ve had on Zoom have been fantastic,” Ursitti said. “I could tell the people were so happy to be talking to each other. It’s a gift, in my estimation, what PI has been doing.”
Geetha Wunnava has been key in helping implement the Zoom technology at PI.
“I have been very impressed,” she said of how things have been going. “(Participants) are very good about asking for help and being patient with us as we work through the snags. They’re committed to learning this and being online.”
The goal is to simulate the camaraderie that PI folks experience when they get together.
“We’re all used to creating that community in person; now we’re trying to foster that kind of community spirit with none of us being in the same physical space,” Wunnava said. “We’re finding that technology can bridge that for us.”
Ted Davis has also been an invaluable techie.
“I think we’ve exceeded our own expectations,” he said of the online program.
“One thing I have learned is, never underestimate the will of older folks when it comes to using technology,” he added. “We’ve got 90-year-olds who don’t need our help.”
Mary Wesley, education and media specialist with the Vermont Folklife Center, will incorporate some of the seniors’ online testimonials in the folklife center’s vast archive. So decades from now, people will be able to learn how area seniors coped with isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

Addison Independent photographer Trent Campbell has been an avid PI participant since suffering the second of two strokes more than a year ago. The diverse programs have allowed him to keep his mind and body active as he works to regain his balance.  Campbell was disappointed when PI closed its doors in March.
“The reason I was going is because of my stroke recovery, and when (PI) shut down, that was one of the few things I was getting out and doing,” he said. “It was quite impactful.”
While the new online programming doesn’t allow him to get out of the house, he finds it rewarding. He’s been a regular at the “morning chat,” a Monday-Friday conversation that allows participants to talk about anything they’d like. He’s also gone on some of the virtual field trips.
“This has been a good substitute,” he said. “I was hoping they would get something like this going, and I was happy when it finally started to happen.”
PI staff also recently facilitated participant Mimi Hardy’s Mother’s Day Zoom session with her family all over the country.
Schoen has received a lot of great feedback.
“I wanted to call to tell you that I was absolutely delighted to see my friends on Zoom,” one participant recently conveyed to Schoen. “I missed them and was worried about them. I was thrilled to see them, to see everyone. It makes my day, I so love seeing everyone.”
It’s been great to see people rediscover a sense of routine and normalcy, Schoen said.
“One of the basic needs, along with food shelter and heat, is connection,” Schoen said. “The reason Project exists, on one level, is that as you get older, you isolate … and your world becomes smaller. We make elderly people’s worlds larger again.
“We’re doing everything we can to open that world up again for our participants.”
John Flowers is at [email protected].

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