Jewish Family Service is ramping up a new program to help isolated older adult community members stay connected to the community virtually. Nicholas Rackers is the new Virtual Programs Engagement
Specialist at JFS. He is overseeing a program that provides technology and training to older adult community members so they can better engage with JFS’s online programming and connect with their
families and friends.
“The emphasis is on isolated older adults,” Rackers explained. “Data shows social isolation is as bad for your health as smoking 15 packs of cigarettes a day, and for many of our older community
members, they don’t have the technology to be able to participate in our programs.”
Two grants funded the purchase of tablets and data plans for the participants: one from our community’s COVID-19 Relief Fund, funded jointly by the Jewish Federation, The Jewish Foundation,
the Jewish Home of Cincinnati, and donations from community members; and the second from the Elsa Heisel Sule Foundation.
“Right now, our staff is offering its many virtual programs on several different platforms, including Skype, Facetime, Zoom, and WhatsApp,” Rackers said. “We are trying to streamline the way we
offer programs to deliver them in the best way possible. Our goal is to gradually shift our programs to Zoom and to teach everyone how to access it.”
Rackers can speak Russian, which has been extremely useful in communicating with program participants since so many are native Russian speakers. He is also working alongside JFS care managers to
reach out to those receiving the devices—a process which started before Rackers was onboarded, said Linda Kean, Vice President of Operations and Youth & Family Programs. “We were identifying
which of our older adult members were not able to connect to our programs—maybe they didn’t have an iPad or computer, access to the internet or a data plan, or the skills to be able to access
"For some of our homebound or long-term care clients, their access to a tablet can help them continue to be engaged with their friends, even if they can’t
physically come to the programs."
—Nicholas Rackers, Virtual Programs Engagement Specialist, JFS.
Kean said JFS staff reached out by phone to complete a technology audit that gathered data about what equipment they had, and determined whether or not they were interested and willing to learn
the skills to help them connect. “We also surveyed older adults to assess the impact of our virtual programs on reducing isolation,” she continued. “After we determined the need and the impact,
we applied for funding to help with expenses for the Virtual Programs Engagement Specialist position, as well as to cover the cost of providing iPads and data plans for our program participants.”
In addition to distributing the iPads, Rackers is helping to troubleshoot for the JFS program participants who have been joining in programs but who could improve their skills to optimize their
participation. “I’m available for them to reach out to me when they’re having trouble with a device—whether it’s a laptop, tablet, or phone.” He shared a recent story about helping a client
access Zoom on her Android device. “I was talking to her on my work phone, and had my personal cell phone out, walking her through the process. Once we were finished she was able to participate
in the JFS book club program.”
As the world begins to return to in-person events, Rackers said there is still a need for getting tablets out into the community. “Zoom isn’t going anywhere. We all will continue to use it, and
our programs will develop into a hybrid of in-person and virtual. For some of our homebound or long-term care clients, their access to a tablet can help them continue to be engaged with their
friends, even if they can’t physically come to the programs. Or maybe they’re sick one week or can’t arrange transportation. The more options we have for them to engage with their peers, the
“I’m very, very happy to have the opportunity to do this work because I really like doing work that helps people,” Rackers said. “I feel I have to be able to connect my work with some bigger
mission. I watched my grandfather age exponentially last year during the COVID lockdowns. Knowing I’m helping people like him stay connected and active gives me a great feeling.”