At 103, Adele Lerner is largely homebound and almost totally deaf, but a few times a week she dances around her studio apartment in Flushing, Queens — with the help of her home computer, and her walker as a partner.
Lerner is among a half-dozen elderly Queens participants in the Virtual Senior Center, a unique program, believed to be the first of its kind in the country, to fight social isolation and to give homebound seniors better access to community services. Based at the Benjamin Rosenthal Senior Center in Flushing, the program is a public-private partnership involving Selfhelp Community Services, a Jewish agency affiliated with UJA-Federation of New York; the Department for the Aging; and Microsoft.
A lifeline for homebound elderly, the virtual center allows the participants to interact with other seniors, via the computer, discussing current events and reminiscing, and “sit in” on everything from Tai Chi to dance classes.
A few miles from Lerner in Bayside, 86-year-old Milton Greidinger says the program has changed his life. “I thought I was going to die soon — not physically, but mentally,” said Greidinger, who has been largely confined to his home for the past two years and suffers from stinitis, a spinal condition. “You sit around. You don’t do anything.”
Today, the semi-retired salesman of giftware, says he has “started getting a whole batch of new friends,” adding that he’s also used his computer to connect with two long-lost cousins and a girlfriend from 70 years ago. “When you’re down in the dumps and all of a sudden people start to talk to you, it’s like a rebirth.”
Now, following a successful first year, the Virtual Senior Center is poised to expand from its current six clients to 12, according to Selfhelp’s Hanan Simhon, who directs the group’s Queens North Case-Management Program.
“We’ve been getting calls from all over the country and, not only that, but internationally,” to inquire about the program, said Simhon, whose office has already hosted visitors from as far away as France and Australia.
Both Greidinger and Lerner are part of New York’s rapidly growing population of senior citizens, ages 65 and over, a community that numbers 900,000 people. More than a third of those older adults live alone, and more than a third are considered homebound, according to the city’s Department for the Aging.
Selfhelp also plans to expand the program’s Jewish content with the help of an $80,000 grant from UJA-Federation. The additional content could include such offerings as a class in Jewish spirituality, links to Jewish newspapers and links to Yiddish music and plays.
Federation’s allocation is one of five grants to beneficiary agencies aimed at promoting innovative programs that enable older adults “to stay in the community with safety, security and dignity,” said Roberta Leiner, managing director of Federation’s Caring Commission. In addition to adding Jewish content, the grant for the Virtual Senior Center will fund a study to explore the feasibility of instituting similar programs around the city.
On that score, Sabrina Ramos, a director of operations and special projects at the Department for the Aging, said cost could be a “stumbling block.” But she suggested that any expansion of the idea doesn’t have to involve more senior centers — just more seniors — and that the clients, in turn, could be connected to only one center. Scott Code, Selfhelp’s computer expert, also said the cost of computers and online access has come down rapidly.
The idea for the Virtual Senior Center began about a year ago, according to Leo Asen, Selfhelp’s vice president for senior communities, when Microsoft approached city officials with the idea of using technology to help the city’s most vulnerable residents. It was an area in which the company was already experienced, having begun projects in several cities to train older adults, students and other financially strapped Americans to use computers. City officials, in turn, wanted to focus on homebound, socially isolated older adults and chose to enlist Selfhelp in the project.
“They thought Selfhelp would make a good partner because we had all the ingredients they were looking for,” Asen said — a senior center, a case-management operation and a keen familiarity with technology.
Indeed, the agency, an organization with 23 locations in the city and Nassau County, is known for its help to older adults, especially Holocaust survivors. And in recent years, Asen said, Selfhelp has begun employing technology to assist them, including devices that monitor their daily activity and computer-based games aimed at stimulating their minds.
The three partners collectively decided that one of the smartest ways to help the homebound elderly would be to connect them to people and activities at a nearby senior center, giving birth to the Virtual Senior Center.
With funding provided by Microsoft, Selfhelp’s Queens North Case-Management Program identified six people who would benefit the most from such a project, said Simhon. The agency then hired Code to install computers and Webcams in each of their homes and at the Benjamin Rosenthal Senior Center, where the case-management program is located.
“We customized the setups according to their needs,” Code said, referring to the program’s homebound clients and the simple, touch-screen computers they received. Lerner, for instance, uses specialized headphones for her hearing problem, and a client with poor eyesight now has software that reads the text on her screen.
Code provides ongoing training to the six clients, whose computers have links to the center’s schedule of activities, including four interactive groups — current events, the reminiscence class, Trivia and therapy. The clients can connect to each of those weekly groups if and when they desire, allowing them to see, hear and talk with other members of the center. They can watch other classes, like armchair yoga, dancing and Tai Chi.
Simhon noted that each client can also access programs and websites outside the center. Adele Lerner, for example, can watch Shabbat services at Central Synagogue in Manhattan simply by clicking on a link each week, while Greidinger, a lover of news and music, can click on links to CNN, the Fox News Channel or the big-band music of Artie Shaw or Jimmy Dorsey.
The program has allowed Adele Lerner to return to her earlier love of dance.
“She used to go to Roseland Dance Hall in her 80s,” said Terry Kaufman, Lerner’s daughter.
An artist, Lerner also uses a computer-based art program, and she talks each morning through Skype, a video-chat program, with another daughter, based in California.
One of Lerner and Greidinger’s new friends is Rachel Itzkowitz, a social-work intern who leads two interactive groups for the Virtual Senior Center.
Her role in the program has taught her that older adults “are people, too, and they have lots of stories to tell,” said Itzkowitz, 22. “If I were homebound and elderly, I’d look forward to the one hour a day I got to socialize with people.”