NEW YORK — March 10, 2010 — Milton Greidinger, 86, could feel his loneliness growing deeper every day. A lifelong New Yorker, Milton is sociable by nature, and during his working years he spent his life in conversation, first as a salesman and later as a buyer for Korvette’s department store. After he retired, Greidinger, who is single, developed chronic health issues that made it very difficult for him to leave his apartment unassisted. Virtually homebound, he lost touch with most of his friends and former coworkers, rarely met anyone new, and felt increasingly isolated and alone.
But today, Greidinger is busy making new friends, learning new skills, embracing new experiences, discussing current events and literature with other seniors, and communicating regularly with old friends and colleagues.
What is making the difference for Greidinger and a few other homebound seniors in New York is the Virtual Senior Center, a demonstration project made possible by a public-private partnership between Microsoft, the New York City Department for the Aging (DFTA) and Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), and Selfhelp Community Services, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to enabling seniors and at-risk families to live independently and with dignity in their own homes. The Virtual Senior Center enhances the lives of homebound seniors by using computer, video and Internet technology—in the seniors’ homes and at their local senior center — to create an interactive experience that reduces social isolation, promotes wellness and provides better access to community services.
Asked what the Virtual Senior Center has done for him, Greidinger gives an answer that is both poignant and eloquent: “It saved my life. Before this project, I was bored to death. I was just waiting for my time to finish. Now, all of a sudden, I’m wide awake. I’m alive again.”
Building the Virtual Senior Center
Greidinger isn’t the only person whose life is being enriched by the Virtual Senior Center. For the demonstration project, Microsoft, DFTA and Selfhelp chose six homebound seniors — three men and three women, ranging in age from 67 to 103. Each participating senior has a desktop computer running the Windows 7 operating system, plus a touch-screen monitor, webcam, microphone and broadband Internet service. Video cameras, microphones and monitors at Selfhelp’s Benjamin Rosenthal Senior Center in Flushing, Queens, enable the homebound seniors to see, hear and interact with classmates and instructors at the center, and to take part in activities such as armchair yoga, art classes, discussion groups and tai chi.
Seniors with age-related impairments — low-vision or dexterity issues are two examples — can use assistive technology such as screen readers or track balls, or take advantage of some of the built-in accessibility options and programs in Windows 7 that make it easier for them to see, hear and use their computers.
Ethel Warfield, 81, is a former supervisor for the U.S. Postal Service. She retired in the late 1980s and did a lot of traveling until her vision began to fail. Warfield has been impressed with the built-in accessibility features in Windows 7 as well as some of the assistive technology devices she now uses. With no previous computer experience or typing skills, Warfield found the standard QWERTY keyboard confusing, so Microsoft arranged for her to have an enlarged ABC keyboard, which she finds more logical and easier to see. Warfield uses Magnifier in Windows 7 to enlarge portions of the computer screen for better visibility, and she sometimes employs a screen reader that speaks text aloud when she uses her mouse to point at a section of the screen.
Milton Greidinger, 86, uses his webcam to participate virtually in an art class at Selfhelp Benjamin Rosenthal Senior Center.
Warfield uses her computer to stay in closer touch with her friends and family, to take part in discussion groups and other activities at the senior center, and to keep up on the news. Speaking of the Virtual Senior Center, she shows her characteristic enthusiasm.
“The program is fantastic. As an older person, I’m amazed at the technology,” she says. “It has totally changed my life.”
Another component of the Virtual Senior Center is technology that enables homebound seniors to manage their health without leaving home. Microsoft HealthVault is a security-enhanced, personal health-management platform that connects with a variety of health and wellness applications as well as health-monitoring devices such as blood pressure cuffs for people with high blood pressure or heart conditions and blood glucose monitors for people with diabetes. Seniors can use those devices at home to monitor their conditions, upload the data to their personal HealthVault accounts, and then make the information available to medical professionals, family members or other caretakers of their choice.
Greidinger currently uses HealthVault and the American Heart Association’s free online heart health center, Heart360.org, to monitor his blood pressure. He plans to share the information with his physician so that, together, they can track his progress and decide on the best course of treatment. And by doing it all from home, Greidinger will be able to keep his doctor well informed and manage his health effectively while sparing himself the difficulty and inconvenience of many routine medical appointments.
Technology Revitalizing Senior Centers
People today are living longer than at any time in history and the population is aging rapidly. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2030 the number of people who are 65 and older will be growing faster than the total population in every state — and 26 states will have doubled their senior population by that date. Yet despite the technology revolution that is creating our digital society, only 38 percent of adults age 65 and older go online and only 26 percent have home broadband access as of December 2009, according to a Pew Research Center report.
Currently, there are at least 2 million homebound seniors in the United States, according to a 2008 report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. As the population ages, the number of homebound seniors with multiple chronic conditions and disabilities will increase dramatically — a trend that is creating deep concerns for cities and other governments that provide services and benefits to seniors, as well as for baby boomers and other family members who care for aging parents or other relatives.
“Personal computers and the Internet are playing a larger role in society — for learning, communication, and a host of everyday tasks — at a time when the senior population is growing faster than any other age group,” says Bonnie Kearney, director of marketing for Trustworthy Computing at Microsoft. “Too many seniors, especially homebound seniors, are being left behind because they have no access to technology and no opportunity to learn basic computer skills. The Virtual Senior Center solves both problems while demonstrating the value of getting homebound seniors connected and offering a model that cities can use to achieve that goal.”
Carole Post, commissioner of the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, says DoITT leverages technology to enhance the delivery of city services and is leading a consortium of New York City agencies and organizations to increase public access to broadband technology through public computer centers, school programs, and the expansion of public Wi-Fi in city parks.
“Broadband technology is the new infrastructure of the 21st century, and serves as a bridge by which an increasing number of homebound seniors are linked to family, friends, activities and services,” Post says. “The Virtual Senior Center, and the important role it plays in improving the lives of these seniors, should serve as a model for public-private partnerships in expanding broadband adoption among underserved populations across the five boroughs.”
Brick-and-mortar senior centers are changing, too, leaving behind their old image as simple activity and meal centers as they evolve into dynamic social and information hubs.
“Preparing for the approaching wave of aging baby boomers has motivated many of us who provide senior services to revisit how we deliver those services,” says Stuart Kaplan, CEO, Selfhelp Community Services, Inc. “More organizations are starting to look at information technology as a way to include seniors who have become homebound due to illness, injury or disability. The growing importance of online access to information, services and other resources is forcing the entire system to reach out to homebound seniors who want to stay connected and remain an integral part of their community.”
Technology Can Help Improve Homebound Seniors’ Health
Many studies have shown that loneliness and isolation can have serious consequences for aging seniors, leading to depression, dementia, poor health and a lower quality of life. Social interaction has been found to have great therapeutic value. When live interaction is not possible, virtual interaction can significantly reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness.
“Senior centers are the social hub for many older New Yorkers, and this new model — the Virtual Senior Center — has shown us that technology will help seniors age in place and remain integrated into the community by bringing that same senior center experience into the home,” says Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, commissioner of the New York City Department for the Aging. “In short, if homebound seniors are no longer able to venture into the world as often or as freely as they would like, then we will bring the world to them.”
As part of the Virtual Senior Center project, Becky Bigio, director of the Selfhelp Senior Source Geriatric Care Management Program, conducted a comprehensive psycho/social assessment of each participating senior. She also tested them for anxiety, depression, memory loss and their capacity for activities of daily living — at the start of the program and again at various stages. As a group, the seniors showed marked improvement as a result of their participation in the project.
“The opportunity for homebound seniors to interact virtually with caregivers, providers, peers, family members and friends has made a significant and measurable difference in the quality of their lives,” Bigio says. “Nearly all the candidates have described feeling more connected to others, and show an increasing awareness and appreciation of those connections.”
Welcome to “Modern Land”
Born in the Philippines, Gloria Jayme, 77, learned to use a computer to get the latest news from her native country and exchange e-mail with her siblings.
Adele Lerner, 103, has never made many concessions to age. At 83, she graduated from college with a fine arts degree. She got her first computer — a gift from her daughter — when she was in her early 90s. She hated it.
“When I first got my computer, I wanted to throw it out the window, but my daughter was in California and with the computer she could say hello to me every day,” she says.
Even though she is nearly 20 years older than the next oldest senior in the Virtual Senior Center project, Lerner was by far the most experienced computer user in the group when the project started. Yet, except for keeping in touch with her family, she had never done much with her first computer. That all changed when she joined the Virtual Senior Center project.
Today, Lerner uses technology to record her personal video blog, take part in painting and calligraphy classes and discussion groups at the senior center, and engage in religious services streamed live from the New York Central Synagogue. She also enjoys looking in on large group activities at the Rosenthal Center, such as tai chi and ballroom dancing in the auditorium.
“I can see them dancing, and I feel like dancing myself,” she says. “It’s wonderful.”
Lerner also uses her computer and a small webcam to talk face to face with her social worker and family members who can’t visit frequently. And she says the Virtual Senior Center has expanded her circle of friends. “I am in the best place now: Modern Land,” she says. “I love it here.”