When the global pandemic became a local concern, the physical health of our elderly was paramount in the minds of the community. However, the remedy of isolation created problems of its own. Older adults rely heavily on area programming to boost camaraderie and enhance their emotional well-being. So, the lockdowns that were intended to protect the health of our aging population simultaneously threatened their connections to friends, family, and the community. Awareness of this problem inspired one local organization to get creative in their attempts to maintain strong member engagement.
In Greater Cincinnati, the Mayerson JCC is home to an award-winning senior center that supports a vibrant “60 & Better” community. But when the coronavirus arrived and threatened all aspects of routine life—especially for older adults—many of the center’s programs were soon put in jeopardy. In an effort to adapt—the organization’s imaginative leadership, along with a willing, openminded clientele, worked to meet the unprecedented challenges with grace and resolve.
The path was not an easy one; the senior center was first forced to close its doors—bringing its wide variety of programs and activities to an immediate stop. While the decision to close was undoubtedly necessary, it forced many older adults to feel separated from the people and programs that had traditionally offered them a sense of community and connection.
The programs at the center have always been varied and plentiful. Among their offerings are Yiddish programs, discussion groups, daily kosher lunches, Mahjong tournaments (and casual competition), day trips, group celebrations, and hands-on painting instruction. The center is also known for fitness classes that are specifically designed for older adults, and taught by instructors certified in the training of this age group.
When COVID-19 suddenly halted all of these popular JCC activities, 60 & Better Program Manager Melissa Shrimplin knew she would have to work fast to maintain engagement with her older adult members. “When everything shut down all at once, it was rough because we knew how important these programs were to our 60 & Better clients,” Shrimplin said. “To some of our folks, these activities can feel like a lifeline.”
June Ridgway, who is the director of AgeWell Cincinnati—a central community resource for older adults in our region—echoes Shrimplin’s concern. “Older adults have been hit the hardest by the coronavirus, and it’s not going away anytime soon,” Ridgway said. “This group tends to be the most isolated and forgotten—across geography, incomes, and social class issues— especially if they don’t have family. Our aging community needs our help and support now more than ever.”
Ann Sutton Burke, the vice president of Client Services at Jewish Family Service, says the current reality of isolation is a very real health concern. “When older adults don’t receive the stimulation they yearn for, and frankly need,” Burke said, “it can send them into a downward spiral of decline, and even worsen dementia. Activities, programs, and celebrations are not trivial; they’re essential.”
"Not only are our members eager to continue our programs, virtually, they are so interested to stay connected that they learned the tech side of things very quickly! We were up and running, virtually, as early as April 1."
— Melissa Shrimplin, 60 & Better Program Manager
Shrimplin’s solution was to set up and enable virtual programming. She noted that most members were tech savvy, but if any of them had any trouble, she was there to walk them through every step. “Not only are our members eager to continue our programs, virtually,” Shrimplin said, “they are so interested to stay connected that they learned the tech side of things very quickly! We were up and running, virtually, as early as April 1.”
The hard work did more than pay quick dividends, it ensured a smooth onboarding process, making each program and activity easily accessible to all. An example of this efficient transitioning could be seen with the “Active Minds” program. The live program provided a dynamic forum to discuss books, articles, current events, and more. According to Shrimplin, Active Minds was consistently one of the most sought-after programs they offered. Back in April, this popularity made Active Minds the logical, first choice of programs to go virtual. Today, Active Minds is currently being conducted online every Monday and Tuesday and engages as many as 40 members per week.
Shrimplin administers Active Minds, but that doesn’t stop her from becoming an active contributor. “I love participating in the discussions, hearing their stories, and learning from their experiences each week,” she said. Shrimplin believes the community has responded exceptionally well to the changes we’ve had to endure. “We have formed such a safe and comfortable space that members really open up and are honest with each other and themselves,” she added.
Another popular online event is Friday Shabbat Blessings, which occurs every Friday at 12:00 p.m. These sessions allow our community to share news about what they are going through—good, bad, and difficult. Through this sharing, participants develop very close relationships with the rabbi, and with one another.
Although these are times of uncertainty, our community is standing firm. The creativity and innovation put forth by Shrimplin is helping members bond through the deep connections online programming can foster. The overwhelming success of these virtual offerings is further shown in the fact that members are now participating from all over the United States, with some people dialing in from cities as far away as Seattle. Burke believes this type of success anticipates an exciting future, but one that comes with new responsibilities. “As a community, we must continue to search for ways to make digital access available to all our older adults,” Burke said.
Shrimplin suggests that as challenging as these times have been, the community is stronger and more vibrant than ever before. “It’s funny how a crisis reveals character,” she said. “For many of us, this will be the worst year of our lives. Yet, in being taken so low, we are forced to grapple with some of the deeper questions, and I think that is exactly what we’ve witnessed in many of these virtual sessions, where the conversations and connections are so rich.”
To access the virtual programming offered through the Mayerson JCC, you must be a member of the JCC or the Senior Center. If you are interested in learning more about ways to do this, or to learn about the specific programs one can access through 60 & Better, please reach out to AgeWell Cincinnati. The experts at AgeWell Cincinnati can connect you to 68 services and 8 categories—through 1 number: 513-766-3333.