Tech Friendships

Loneliness can have real consequences for older people in terms of happiness and health. In New York, one organization is taking the senior center online—creating a platform for socialization from the comfort of home.


Loneliness can have real consequences for older people, in terms of happiness and health.

In New York, one organization is taking the senior center online, creating a platform for socialization from the comfort of home.

Take a look.

For older adults, feeling lonely is more than a matter of happiness.

According to a 2012 study, loneliness in seniors affects their health and longevity of life.

So, when Microsoft and New York City's Department of Aging teamed up with Selfhelp, a nonprofit promoting independent living for seniors in New York, there was a need to fill, and executive director of Selfhelp Innovations, David Dring, knew exactly where to direct their efforts.

We recognized that a number of, um, the people that would go to our senior centers, you know, would slowly stop going, and for any number of reasons, no longer be able to access the socialization, the education, and the enrichment that would happen for them at the senior center.

So, we said, what if we were to use technology to essentially bring the senior center services to people in their home?

Hi, Bernie. How are you?

Good to see you.

The focus of Dring's career has been utilizing technological innovations to help older adults live independently, safely, and with dignity.

Still, what would eventually become Selfhelp's Virtual Senior Center brought with it some unique challenges -- most notably, creating an intuitive interface for a generation that didn't grow up with computers, and serving some users who were completely unfamiliar with how to use one.

You know, teaching someone how to use a mouse, for example, if you were to hold the -- the cord, the mouse sort of dangles underneath.

And so, if you follow adult learning theory, you would know that an older adult would map a mouse to a mouse.

So, the tail would be the back of the mouse.

And so, you would turn it around, and you would try to use the mouse with the tail, or essentially, the cord, pointing U.

And you would go in opposite directions on the screen.

Dring opted for a touch screen.

Virtual Senior Center computers also use a custom-made interface that brings users directly to its home screen.

Five years after launching, Dring still looks for ways to improve the system.

We really did an interactive process.

We, um, were constantly working with the participants in the program to give us their advice on what was working, what wasn't working.

We would do a lot of in-home, uh, sort of, uh, technical assistance calls for people with the purpose of watching them use the device to see what was the actual problem that they were experiencing, and then figuring out how we could use the technology to solve the problem, instead of training them on how to use it differently.

That mentality has cut training time for senior users from several weeks to just an hour-and-a-half.

Computers are sometimes free or provided on a sliding price scale, and setup and training are included.

What started as a pilot program of about 6 users has exploded into a fully active true Virtual Senior Center, with over 400 members and about 40 classes a week.

Users are equipped with a built-in camera and microphone to join in on lectures, discussions, concerts, and even fitness lessons.

[ Laughs ] Where am I in this thing here?


I don't know.

I'm Peter Marshall, that's all I know.

[ Laughs ]

It's been a game-changer for senior John Gaidis.

He had been visiting Selfhelp's brick-and-mortar senior center for computer classes, until his wife passed away, and he suffered two strokes, making leaving the house a real challenge.

Being able to use this computer and being -- having computer classes here, and not having to go to the center, it's opened up a whole new world of -- of reality to me.

Subsequently, through physical therapy, I was able to get back to walking.

Now I don't want to give this up anymore. [ Laughs ] So, I'm not going to the center, but I have this, and my friends are really on here, my virtual friends are on here.

Gaidis has his long-time friends and hobbies, but he says the Virtual Senior Center provides something new in his life, and that's exciting.

He travels remotely and discovers new places, learning pieces of different languages along the way, all from the comfort of his own home, sometimes accompanied by his furry sidekick, Theo.

So, it's like having somebody in the house with me, you know.


It is actually great for that.

The socialization of the Virtual Senior Center, and the benefits from the classes it provides, can be extraordinary.

Janice Baker-Offutt has MS.

She loves to be active and used to walk to the gym every day, but recently, she's become more homebound.

Today, she joins John Gaidis and dozens of others from her home in Chicago to participate in a music performance and discussion.

It is amazing what you could do, not only dancing in a chair, but exercising in a chair, and lifting you -- well, not only my legs, but my spirits to all type of heights.

Also joining today's class, Doris Cox.

She says the Virtual Senior Center came at the right time for her.

I was physically -- well, like, just about burned out.

But with -- with this mental stimulation from this program, where we, um, have a lot of different classes, and we participate in discussions and we listen to music, and we take exercises, now my doctor is saying that all my tests are coming back within the normal range.

Beyond the benefits from physical and mental stimulation, Dring says the Virtual Senior Center will allow for better overall care moving forward.

He found in testing with Selfhelp's case management programs that connecting with patients face-to-face virtually led to more productive check-ins than those done over the phone.

For example, we had one person who was a part of our case management program for three or four months over the summer.

They were doing their, you know, monthly phone call check-in, and everything sounded fine.

Then they put the person on the Virtual Senior Center, and they did a call-in, and the guy was sweaty.

And they're like, 'Well, why are you sweaty?'

He's like, 'Well, my air conditioner broke.'

'Well, why didn't you tell us?

You know, we have access to resources to be able to buy you a new air conditioner.'

And so, the things that happen physically, again, the body language that happens, is so important in understanding what a person's actual situation is.

But for regulars like Gaidis, nothing beats the opportunity to make new friends and learn new things every single day.

With the computer, I'm taking dog training lessons.

Oh, great!

[ Laughter ]

That's excellent.

So, and we're -- we're going to learn, aren't we?

I'm going to learn you -- Get -- [ Laughs ]