My online family: the value of virtual workshops for homebound seniors

An estimated 1.9 million U.S. adults age 65 or older are completely or mostly homebound, while another 5.3 million have functional limitations that make it hard to  leave their homes. For these seniors, loneliness and social isolation can actually lead to serious health consequences. In fact, researchers have found that loneliness has been estimated to shorten a person’s life by 15 years, equivalent in impact to being smoking 15 cigarettes per day!

Here in New York City, there are a good number of organizations, (City Meals on Wheels, Self Help, Dorot, and Heights and Hills to name a few) that provide critical services to homebound seniors, such as meal delivery, friendly visiting, and appointment companions. And to scale their reach, some of these organizations are leveraging technology to offer different online classes and workshops for those who are unable to leave their homes.

Vita Story Club partnered with Self Help’s Virtual Senior Center to offer our Life Story Workshops via Zoom video conferencing. At the start, we were curious to see if a virtual workshop was any less intimate or more effortful to run than our typical in-person workshop.

We were delighted to find a tight-knit and supportive community of older adults who were actually very tech-savvy! They seamlessly log onto Zoom every day, mute and unmute themselves with ease, and practiced proper video conference etiquette – raising their virtual “Zoom hand” whenever they had a question or comment. All thanks to the wonderful tech support provided by Self Help.

And the stories they shared! We had Holocaust survivors describing their epic immigration stories and memories of 90th birthdays spent on boozy cruises. All of these stories have been audio recorded and transcribed by the workshop facilitator into each member’s own digital life story book, to save as a keepsake for themselves or loved ones.

But the main takeaway for us was just how incredibly valuable these workshops are for homebound older adults. In our workshops, members expressed the strong friendships they’ve formed and the appreciation they have for all the class facilitators.

When asked, “What was your most joyful day?”, one of the seniors said:

“Joyful days are being on this computer. This was the best thing they could have ever done – was connecting all of us together. It is such a joy and such a pleasure to know that we are connected by friendship. We became a family. And remembering things that have happened so long ago… when you start talking about it, more and more things come up! And you realize how similar we all are. So similar.”

If you’re interested in building friendships, becoming part of a meaningful community, and/or creating a collection of your life stories, feel free to sign up here for a Vita Story Club online workshop. You can join via video conference, or if you don’t want to bother with any software downloads, you can dial-in with just your phone.