Al Kirchen, 88, was in his bathroom when he almost slipped. “It was automatic, my body went into a way that I prevented the fall,” he said. Kirchen credits his miraculous save to the Strength and Motion class he has been taking at the Project FIND senior center. In June, the class went online. “If I didn’t have those classes, I’m sure I would’ve went down,” Kirchen said.
Project FIND is a West Side organization founded in 1967 to meet the needs of low income, elderly New Yorkers. In its early days, Project FIND would distribute information in the Port Authority bus station. Now it runs four senior centers that serve over 3,000 members. “It’s the best thing going on the Upper West Side,” Kirchen said. “It’s got so many classes and activities.”
A major purpose of senior centers is to provide social spaces. Project FIND didn’t want to lose this vital aspect of its work after shutting down in-person activities due to COVID-19. “During the pandemic seniors and older adults are more vulnerable to isolation,” said Director of Community Services Porsha Hall.
When the pandemic hit, Project FIND created a robust roster of online programming on Zoom that the Department for the Aging funds. The organization helped participants who needed help learn to use the new technology. Now, participants can jam to classics in Woodstock Radio or discuss current events in Lets Talk World News.
The online programming seeks to alleviate some of the most pressing problems seniors face while living alone. “We’ve been offering a variety of programs to support people’s mental health issues, try to deter them from depression, but also prevent them from becoming physically unfit,” said Hall.
“We’ve been able to hold onto a lot of people,” Hall said. She believes virtual classes fill a necessary gap in social engagement. “People were really missing socializing and seeing people. You can watch television or have calls with your friends, but it’s a different thing to go and actually see someone on a screen smile,” she said.
The social experience isn’t just for longtime members of Project FIND. Kirchen noted his exercise class was about one third students whom he had not met in person.
Kirchen has been attending classes for the past five years and has enjoyed the online format. “I think it’s the greatest to have a Zoom class you really enjoy right in your apartment,” he said. Even though he belongs to a local gym, Kirchen prefers Rachel Eisenman’s Strength and Motion class at Project FIND. “Rachel addresses the issues of balance, which is so necessary for seniors as they age,” he said. Exercising in an apartment may seem difficult, but Kirchen has found the transition easy. “It doesn’t take that much space, you could just have a chair and a computer on a table in front of you and that’s all you really need,” he said.
Other teachers with class formats that are more difficult to conduct online have creatively adapted their curriculums. At the center, Kirchen would cook alongside others in Food for Thought. He said the online version focuses instead on how to strengthen the immune system against COVID-19 through nutrition.
“Virtuous Circle of Mutual Support”
One challenge that Project FIND’s Executive Director David Gillchrist said the organization has faced is reaching seniors without internet access. “We started to make hundreds of phone calls to our center members,” Gillchrist said, and what he found was that many people didn’t have access to the internet. Gillchrist is currently advocating for the government to provide technology to seniors.
Although going remote poses new problems, it may provide solutions to old ones. Project FIND had been puzzling over how to reach the homebound elderly before the pandemic, but they may have found the answer in online programming. “Suddenly, this has created the means to actually do that,” Gillchrist said about the ability for online classes to include the homebound population. The organization is planning to implement remote classes permanently, even after the pandemic ends.
Gillchrist is optimistic. He believes seniors seeing friendly faces on the screen may be an impetus for participants to independently reach out to each other. “It’s creating that virtuous circle of mutual support,” he said.
Project FIND has posted a monthly schedule of programming with the Zoom link right in the document on its website. The organization is ready to welcome New Yorkers 60 and older to join their online community as new members.
Classes are listed here: http://www.projectfind.org/senior_centers
“I think it’s the greatest to have a Zoom class you really enjoy right in your apartment.” Al Kirchen, 88, Strength and Motion class attendee