Virtual Senior Center Connects Homebound Seniors to Community and Family

A demonstration project developed by Microsoft, the city of New York and Selfhelp Community Services shows how technology can reduce social isolation, increase wellness and enhance quality of life for homebound seniors.

Photo of art class participants including Milton Greidinger participating by webcam
Milton Greidinger, 86, participates in an art class via webcam. Greidinger says before the Virtual Senior Center he was bored to death. Now, he feels the project saved his life and helped him feel awake and alive again.

Microsoft, the city of New York and Selfhelp Community Services Inc. unveiled March 10, their Virtual Senior Center, an innovative public-private partnership and demonstration project that is showing how cities can use technology to revitalize senior centers and enhance the lives of homebound seniors. The Virtual Senior Center uses computer, video and Internet technology to create an interactive experience for homebound seniors that reduces social isolation and gives them better access to community services.

"The New York City Department for the Aging is deeply committed to improving the quality of life for older New Yorkers, and this partnership with Microsoft and Selfhelp Community Services in creating the Virtual Senior Center is one more step toward making New York City the most age-friendly city in the nation," said Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, commissioner of the New York City Department for the Aging (DFTA). "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."

Creating the Virtual Senior Center

The Virtual Senior Center demonstration project—jointly undertaken by Microsoft, the New York City DFTA and the Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications (DoITT), and Selfhelp Community Services—links six homebound seniors (ranging in age from 67 to 103) to Selfhelp's Benjamin Rosenthal Senior Center in Flushing, Queens. Each of the six seniors' homes is equipped with a desktop computer running Windows 7 as well as a touch-screen monitor, a small video camera, a microphone and broadband Internet service.

Homebound seniors participate in group discussion
Homebound seniors participate in a group discussion, via webcam at left, as part of the Virtual Senior Center project, spearheaded by Microsoft, the City of New York and Selfhelp Community Services Inc. at the Benjamin Rosenthal Senior Center in New York.

"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," said Carole Post, DoITT commissioner. "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."

Video cameras and monitors have been strategically placed around the senior center to enable the homebound seniors to interact with classmates and instructors at the center, and to take part in activities such as armchair yoga, painting classes, current events discussions and tai chi. Using the technology, seniors at home can see and hear the other people in the class and actively participate in two-way discussions and activities. Since beginning the project, some have even made new friends. It's Never 2 Late, a Colorado company that creates specialty technology packages for seniors, provides the custom interface.

Seniors with age-related impairments 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, such as the full-screen magnifier.

Participating seniors also have full access to the Internet and are finding new ways to re-engage with the world. One senior woman now enjoys live streaming religious services from New York Central Synagogue, and uses a video link to communicate face-to-face with her children and grandchildren. Many of the seniors play games online, watch videos or listen to music, and use programs designed to improve memory and cognitive function. One of the men in the project used the Internet to track down former co-workers and to get reacquainted with a childhood friend he hadn't seen in more than 70 years. He has also started ordering groceries online and is exploring ways to streamline and expand his home-based business.

"Even in a large and vibrant city like New York, people can feel isolated and alone," said Bonnie Kearney, director of Marketing for Trustworthy Computing at Microsoft. "At Microsoft, we work with governments, technology partners and nonprofit organizations around the world to create inclusive communities that welcome people because of their abilities rather than excluding them, even inadvertently, because of their disabilities. One way we help make that possible is by continually developing accessible technology that is safer and easier to use.

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