As Senior Centers Dwindle, Virtual Options Become Reality

Jan 4, 2016

The Jewish Healthcare Foundation allocated $240,000 over the next two years to bring a Virtual Senior Center to Pittsburgh through a computer-based program expected to teach live interactive history classes, gin rummy games, yoga and more.

The center will help seniors learn, build their social networks and have fun through technology, especially as the volume of traditional centers continue to decline, said foundation COO/Chief Program Officer Nancy Zionts.

“Our community has almost halved the number of senior centers where people are able to physically connect,” Zionts said. “Part of that has been that the senior centers failed to change in as rapid a way as the seniors themselves have changed. Seniors today have less of a need or interest to go to one site all day for one set of limited programming.”

Created in New York City by Selfhelp Community Services, the digital model has been used by residents in New York and Chicago. Some seniors use their own computers to access the Virtual Senior Center, but others could be provided basic devices if they don't have the hardware at home.

“The device is an off-the-shelf Windows machine,” said David Dring, Selfhelp's executive director. “We work with people who have never used a computer before and we are able to train them in about two hours. The underlying technology is very similar to what’s used in Google hangouts.”

Local seniors could have computers in their hands as soon as the summer, Zionts said. And while the Virtual Senior Center will start here with existing curriculum from other cities, the goal is to quickly integrate Pittsburgh museums and other local content into the platform.

There are also opportunities for seniors to access medical appointments through the technology, she said.

South Side florist Cyril Esser, who provides flower arrangements for Citiparks’ senior center in his neighborhood, said he likes the idea of a Virtual Senior Center. Esser said he and other seniors can’t walk up steep steps in old buildings where some yoga studios are housed.

“Virtual yoga would be great,” he said, “because a lot of seniors, although the yoga is beneficial for movement and exercise, a lot of them can’t get to where those yoga studios are.”

Zionts said the foundation is still exploring a host of other options.

“What are those pieces that are appropriate to be funded through philanthropy?" she said. "What are those pieces that are appropriate to be funded through other resources that are engaged in keeping seniors well and active in the community? And then we have been advised by people who work with seniors that there should be a portion of this that is a co-pay ... There are people for whom it would be an extension of their cable service.”

In both New York and Chicago, Virtual Senior Center devices and internet connections for users were covered by foundations. Pittsburgh will likely use a cost-sharing model, Zionts said, but the details are still being discussed. 

In this week's Tech Report calendar: 

  • In this week’s tech calendar, BioBlast takes place Jan. 28. It’s a networking opportunity for biotech entrepreneurs, established life sciences companies, academicians and others.

The Jewish Healthcare Foundation is also a financial supporter of 90.5 WESA.