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‘Virtual Senior Academy’ expands to connect more older adul…

‘Virtual Senior Academy’ expands to connect more older adul…

28 minutes ago

Many older adults feel isolated and lonely — and not just during quarantine for a pandemic. But the past six weeks of social distancing and stay-at-home orders have removed more seniors from routine companionship.

In response to the increased need, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation has ramped up its Virtual Senior Academy. The Pittsburgh foundation established the online service three years ago to offer interactive classes for seniors.

The platform has seen signups almost triple and attendance has doubled the past two months.

There are weekly sessions on topics such as health and wellness, history and the arts, book clubs, music and more. It requires access to a computer, a webcam and an internet connection. They’ve added more choices in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

People 50 and older are invited to join in. Facilitators are community members of all ages who share their expertise. “Tech buddies” — young volunteers with computer skills — help get the seniors connected.

“The instructors are friendly and funny and engaging and knowledgeable,” said Beth Schmidt, 55, of Shaler. “They inspire me.”

Schmidt has taken health and caregiving classes, an Andy Warhol Museum class as well as stress management and travel. A favorite was on astronomy.

“I can’t remember them all,” she said. “These classes are such great tools. I feel like I am part of a community.”

JHF is working with the Pennsylvania Department of Aging to increase program access. An April report from the department’s Council on Aging, focused on needs during the covid-19 pandemic, cited the Virtual Senior Academy as “viable option for those looking to connect virtually. … Connecting older adults to resources so that they can access these networks will reduce the instances of social isolation.”

Making a connection

Mara Leff, director of innovation for the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, helped to launched the platform in August 2017. Allegheny County is the second oldest in the country, with over 50,000 people over age 75 living by themselves.

“Isolation and loneliness are major issues for these individuals,” said Leff. “This has been an especially tough time for older adults. We need to pay attention to this vulnerable population.”

Class options based on input from older adults’ opinions. The seniors helped test the program. Since its inception, more than 1,000 people have registered and more than 500 classes have been offered.

Classes are all done live, rather than being pre-recorded, to maintain the interactive emphasis.

They continue to partner with organizations to expand their reach and class choices. One of the collaborations is with Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh and its Coffee Connect Pittsburgh meet-up. Director Laura Poskin has brought this event — which normally takes place inside various brick-and-mortar cafés — to the virtual location of VSA.


Courtesy of Scotland Huber

The Virtual Senior Academy has partnered with organizations such as Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh and its Coffee Connect Pittsburgh meet-up.


People are invited to bring their own cup of coffee and talk to one another in a place where they can connect with each other and combat isolation and loneliness, Poskin said.

“The goal of Coffee Connect Pittsburgh is to facilitate normal conversation and the importance of meeting new people,” Poskin said. “There is a different kind of openness when you meet a brand new friend. It is all part of building a community, and we are missing out on those conversations.”

Poskin added the importance of these meet-ups — whether in person or online — has been even more crucial during this time of quarantine.

“This is such a fascinating time, but also a cruel time,” Poskin said. “It can be really devastating. Sometimes with everything that is happening, it is hard to wrap your head around it all. It is a blur at times.”

Making a move

JHF is beginning to transition management of the Virtual Senior Academy to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

The JCC “is entrenched in the community and will be able to make the transition and make a great impact with our reach in the community and those isolated at home,” said Sharon Feinman, division director AgeWell at the Jewish Community Center. “It offers a huge virtual presence to keep seniors engaged. It’s about helping them with their quality of life.”

The VSA’s “network of professionals make all the difference with their expertise and way of making participants feel welcome,” said Fara Marcus, division director development and strategic marketing for the JCC.

“This time has been so stressful for so many people,” Marcus said. “So if we can bring something positive and some happiness and some reassurance to our community in this time of crisis.”

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact JoAnne at 724-853-5062, [email protected] or via Twitter .

Coronavirus | Local | Allegheny


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