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Virtual Senior Academy Urgently Expands Courses, Countering Isolation During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Attendees join a new Coffee Hour event on the Virtual Senior Academy.

The Virtual Senior Academy is countering increased isolation among at-risk populations by launching a slate of new courses. The COVID-19 pandemic presents an especially dangerous threat to adults 60 and older, who are more likely to develop a severe, if not deadly case of the virus. Allegheny County has more than 50,000 seniors over the age of 75 that live alone, and adherence to new social distancing regulations exacerbate already persistent challenges of isolation and loneliness, conditions which themselves increase the risk of adverse health effects and early mortality.

In response, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) is ramping up its Virtual Senior Academy, founded in August 2017 as a free live-streaming platform for interactive courses. Seniors can connect in classes focused on health and wellness, technology, literature, arts and music, history, and current events. During the past three years, over 1,000 seniors have joined the growing online community, which has hosted more than five hundred classes to date.

The Academy is partnering with community organizations across the region and nation, including AARP PA, Age-Friendly Seattle and locally Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh, UPMC for Life, Aetna Insurance, and the University of Pittsburgh's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute among others to broadcast in-person programming to the comfort of seniors' homes. The Academy is also working with Pittsburgh City Council leadership to provide intergenerational programming to help working parents provide a meaningful online experience for their children at home. JHF is also working directly with the Pennsylvania Department of Aging to increase program access and reach during this unprecedented time.

"The Academy provides needed interactions with others while learning and laughing together," said Filomena Varvaro, a facilitator and participant on the Virtual Senior Academy. "With the stay-at-home order, it is all the more important and valuable to me."

Aside from expanded collaborations, the Academy is also beginning the significant transitioning to a new home at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Pittsburgh and working closely with the organization to adapt its current programming for seniors to the platform now in light of COVID-19. In an effort to reach more seniors in need, JHF will transfer management of the Virtual Senior Academy to the JCC, along with a new $175,000 grant to integrate the JCC's robust in-person programming with the digital application this summer.

"The Virtual Senior Academy is a dynamic program that engages older adults, especially during these challenging times when social isolation can become a significant barrier to health and wellness," said Alexis Mancuso, Assistant Executive Director at the JCC. "Once our community is able to return to normal socialization and activity, the Academy will continue to enhance the lives of older adults within our community through a robust series of programs and services."

Interested participants are encouraged to sign up for a free account at www.virtualsenioracademy.org. Phone assistance for help using the website is available from the Academy's Tech Buddy program. The tech buddies are trained in partnership with local computer literacy non-profit, Computer Reach, to help interested participants connect on the Virtual Senior Academy. Any community members or organizations looking to teach classes or volunteer for the Tech Buddy program should reach out to Kylea Covaleski at covaleski@jhf.org.

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