By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Adult enrichment classes provide socialization opportunities for many older adults. Though school days are long gone for most, joining a class to learn more about an engaging subject is plain fun. When the pandemic hit in March, leaders at organizations such as Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and Oasis Rochester knew that enrichment classes could not continue; however, through online streaming, they have maintained a semblance of normality.
“We realized we needed to try and stay true to our mission of promoting healthy aging through lifelong learning, active lifestyles and volunteer engagement,” said Ann Cunningham, Oasis Rochester director. “We made sure to maintain contact with our participants frequently as a way to remain engaged and informational during such a difficult time.”
Oasis turned to the Zoom platform to deliver its programs to participants. The national Oasis organization put together a YouTube tutorial on how to use Zoom. By partnering with Spiro 100, Oasis began offering a free trial of their exercise videos. By May, Oasis Rochester offered Zoom classes in dance (ballet, jazz and tap) exercise, history, the arts and music (Oasis Community Chorus, piano and music theory), languages (German and French), health, wellness and personal development.
“While our participants miss being together in person, we open classes 15 minutes early and it has been a wonderful time for reconnecting and community building,” Cunningham said. “We will continue offering classes via Zoom and anticipate a hybrid opening — in-person socially distanced and masked as well as via Zoom — this fall.”
The national Oasis organization has begun to partner with all the local Oasis centers to present online content stemming from all the centers. This enables participants to join classes that would formerly be held beyond their own city.
A list of Oasis’ classes is available at www3.oasisnet.org/Rochester-NY/Classes.
A similar pivot is taking place at YMCA of Greater Rochester (www.rochesterymca.org).
“The Y dove into the virtual world, bringing workouts directly to people at home with exercise classes and workout tips, first through Facebook live and now with a new platform, Virtual YMCA,” said Kevin Fitzpatrick, chief operation officer, YMCA of Greater Rochester.
Virtual YMCA allows members to stay connected with access to a wide variety of group exercise classes and workouts, included as a new member benefit with their membership. A new category on the Virtual YMCA — active older adults — offers exercise classes geared specifically toward seniors to promote better balance and strength.
“The pandemic has been isolating for many people, especially our active older adults,” Fitzpatrick said. “At the Y, we believe in building a healthy mind, body and spirit. As we reopened, we wanted to make sure that all our members had opportunities to exercise and socialize, safely.”
The YMCA’s policies and procedures include new air filtration systems, advanced registration to avoid overcrowding, markings to allow for physical distance among members.
Shifting to Zoom classes “has gone very well,” said Karen Arrighetti, vice chairwoman of marketing for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
Osher closed its doors in March like everyone else, and in about three weeks, began its spring semester of adult enrichment classes on Zoom.
Arrighetti said that a few members dropped off because they were not interested in engaging through technology; however, overall, the response has been positive and has been a benefit in surprising ways.
“We’ve increased membership in states as far away as Montana,” Arrighetti said. “One joined us from Nigeria. Her two sons attend RIT and she saw on the RIT newsletter about Osher and she joined. We hope to expand it more.”
Going virtual has also helped include more people who do not drive or limit their driving to daytime hours or clear weather — a big factor in the older age range that Osher tends to draw.
Remote classes help Osher expand how many may sign up.
Arrighetti also said that people no longer must choose between coinciding classes. Since the virtual classes are recorded and available online for two weeks, members can take both classes by watching one later.
“Some would take two to three classes and now they average four to five because they don’t have to drive,” she said.
Recording classes also helps accommodate members living in different time zones.
For these reasons, Arrighetti said Osher will continue offering classes online.
“We’re trying to think of new strategies and ways to make people feel welcome even if they can’t come in person,” she said.
Osher does not anticipated offering any in-person programming any earlier than summer and more likely the fall, depending upon how the pandemic goes.
“Our population is particularly at risk so we need to be more careful,” Arrighetti said. She added that the socializing participants engaged in before and after class was not recognized as important until they could no longer meet in person. Now, “It’s something that people appreciate even more on Zoom,”Arrighetti said.
“Because we allow members to create special interest groups, you can get involved. Other people can share that and you can create your own groups. People can evolve something they have an interest in. The social aspect is under played.”
Like the others, Adam Traub, associate director with Monroe County Library System, said that his organization’s enrichment programming ground to a halt last March at the 20 independent member libraries. Most of these began offering virtual programming for patrons by April.
“At the Central Library, we’ve had virtual talks with authors,” Traub said. “We also have a really popular writing club. The librarian wanted to keep it going so they’ve been meeting regularly virtually.”
The library has also offered online video premiers, guest speakers, and craft groups with take-away materials ready for pickup at the branch.
To appeal to patrons’ interests sparked during the quarantine, “we started some clubs like a cooking club and a gardening club, which has gotten some nice play. We have been posting weekly cooking challenges so people would get on and show what they did. That had quit a big of activity.”
The libraries also offer streamed story time for children, which may give caregiving grandparents a break. Some of the stories are offered bilingually, which can help grandparents share their native language.
“If you have a story time you tune into with your grandkids and if the librarian isn’t there to post, you can click on another library’s story time,” Taub said.
To keep bookworms reading, most area libraries have offered curbside pick-up and delivery. The libraries have also checked in with patrons to see if they would be interested in e-books.
“Some are hesitant about it, but we’ve had a few ‘converts,’” Taub said. “They’re excited to see they can increase the print size and won’t need large print books. We also drive over and deliver a ton of books to congregant living centers. We’ve been continuing that service to make sure that they have support.”
Some branches offer subject bags so a patron could call and ask for books on woodworking and then pick up the curated books curbside.
Taub said that many patrons have expressed that they miss the community feel of in-person classes and the opportunity to browse the stacks themselves.
“Having an empty library is no fun for anybody,” he said. “Whether adult or children’s programming, the virtual classes don’t have the same, personal touch.”
Monroe Community College has about 150 learners aged 55 and older every semester. Christine Casalinuovo-Adams, associate vice president of Enrollment Management at Monroe Community College, said that a hybrid of in-person and online classes has helped reduce the campus’ population density.
“As the well-being of our students and employees is our foremost priority, MCC continues to take appropriate, preventive actions to maintain a healthy and safe learning environment, in compliance with New York state and Monroe County directives,” she said.
In the fall semester, 62% of those in the 55-plus age range chose online classes. MCC’s enrichment classes include health/wellness, physical fitness and dance.
“With various distance-learning options available to match different learning styles, needs and preferences, MCC is ready to help learners successfully navigate the virtual world,” Casalinuovo-Adams said.
The school’s Student Technology Help Desk offers help in accessing technology needed for online classes, along with its “How to Zoom 101” video, in which an MCC peer navigator helps people become familiar with using Zoom.