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Aging Series: It Takes A (Virtual) Village

Exploring Opera: Jewish Treasures
Jesse King
Over 100 seniors and older adults recently attended James Sokol's "Exploring Opera: Jewish Treasures" on Zoom.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to shutter senior centers to in-person activities, many organizations are scrambling to keep their members engaged at home. WAMC’s Jesse King has part seven of our special series on aging. 

Opera instructor James Sokol has been entertaining quite a few guests these past few months. In his latest Zoom seminar, titled “Exploring Opera: Jewish Treasures,” over 100 seniors and opera-aficionados from across the country danced in their bedrooms, brushed up on theatre history, and shared memories of their favorite performances. It’s one of a number of Zoom programs being offered to Jewish Community Centers nationwide via the National JCC Adult & Senior Alliance, which Sokol also directs.

Sokol says the Alliance started as a way to boost programming for local JCCs during the pandemic, with the added bonus of employing a few of his musical peers on the side. But mostly, after months of shoehorning in-person events onto online platforms, Sokol says he wanted to curate something that actually felt comfortable over Zoom.

“We set them up as meetings, not as webinars. Because, honestly, I find the webinars to be a little bit cold. Whereas a meeting, you know, you see other people, you're involved with other people," says Sokol. "You know you're a part of something."

"We're just trying to make sure our seniors and our older adults don't feel isolated at home."

Attendees can register for the events online, through their cooperating JCC or eventbrite.com. If opera isn’t your forte, have no fear — through the Alliance, centers like Albany’s Sidney-Albert JCC are also hosting travel seminars, cocktail hours, and cheese and brownie tastings (with, yes, actual food mailed to your door). In person, you can still attend the occasional masked-up, spaced-out art or fitness class. Otherwise, Programming Coordinator Lisa Morlitz says the online events have been a lifesaver.

“Our goal with all these programs — we also have other programs that we run ourselves, things like Book Mavens, Eye on the World is a virtual discussion group that's coming back — we're just trying to make sure our seniors and our older adults don't feel isolated at home," she adds. 

Likewise, LifePath Executive Director Monika Boeckmann says its Capital Region locations largely shut down in November, with dining centers resorting to grab-and-go meals. While she says many seniors — and senior centers — have worked out how to handle essential needs like grocery delivery and telemedicine, socialization remains tricky.

In some ways she considers LifePath lucky: its centers offer Zoom classes on subjects ranging from floral design to yoga and Tai Chi, and thanks to donations and grants, they have a number of laptops and tablets on-hand to lend seniors for these programs. Boeckmann says LifePath will even teach seniors how to use that technology. What it can’t do, unfortunately, is grant them the power to use it.

“Well, we’re talking to Internet providers, but haven’t had any luck in getting anyone to give people free Internet — which is really a big risk, I mean, it’s really not something we can expect," Boeckmann explains. "So although we have a reasonable participation, up to 20 people at our sessions, there are still so many seniors that we are not able to reach other than our reassurance phone calls, which we make hundreds of them every week.”

Boeckmann says those calls have long been used to help identify seniors’ needs, but at this point in the pandemic, many callers are simply asking seniors about their day. 

"Some people we speak to just about every day. Many people get a weekly call, some are down to once a month, because they feel they have family nearby," Boeckmann adds. 

"Some people we speak to just about every day."

LifePath also has a weekly “telesupport” group for at-home caregivers, who Boeckmann says have also been particularly isolated and stretched-thin by the pandemic. She says senior centers are offering as many online programs as they can, but ultimately these conversations go a long way — especially during the holiday season, when feelings of loneliness are more common. While health officials across the country are pleading with families to avoid holiday gatherings, Boeckmann says they can still find ways to stay connected. She advises families to give their loved ones a call — and seniors: don’t be afraid to reach out first.

"I’m a little bit older, I have children and grandchildren and they live all over the country. And if I just wait for them to call me, I’m waiting a little bit longer," she explains. "They’re always happy when I reach out to them also and then they can carve out 15 minutes or so to chat with me."

Morlitz says the Albany JCC has been holding a number of online Hanukkah events for its members, and will hold a second night of Zoom celebrations Wednesday. As for Sokol, he says the Alliance is ramping up production as well — and he expects the events to continue well after the pandemic.

“I get emails after almost every program...You know, ‘I’m a senior who is living in a senior community, I’m basically locked in my room all day, we’re not even allowed to go to our social halls or have dinners together, and these programs are a lifeline to me,'" says Sokol. "So the response has been just overwhelmingly positive.”

LifePath currently maintains four living centers in Cohoes, Watervliet, and two in Albany. In addition to its programs, the Albany JCC has links to a number of free audiobooks, classes, and large-print puzzles for seniors on itswebsite

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."
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