Jackie Sandblade, 80, readily lists the activities she and her husband, Eric, 76, were involved in before the pandemic.
The couple, who reside at the Woodcrest Villa retirement community, took water aerobics classes and played bingo. They attended movie nights and lectures — one lecture in particular on Lancaster city architecture stuck with her, Jackie recalls.
All of that, of course, had to shut down when coronavirus hit. So, the Sandblades were delighted when they learned about Virtual Connections, the online senior center created by the Lancaster County Office of Aging.
Accessed through Zoom, it offers games, musical instrument lessons, yoga, exercise classes, crafting and more.
"It's been exceptionally nice," Jackie said. "We're enjoying it very much."
A unique program
Virtual Connections is free and open to anyone age 55 or older. Lisa Paulson, the program director for the Office of Aging's senior centers, said it's the only fully fledged online senior center in Pennsylvania.
Around 80 people have signed up so far, with more joining every week as the word spreads.
"It's cutting-edge," she said.
The idea to launch Virtual Connections came after Gov. Tom Wolf's stay-at-home order shuttered the eight senior centers that the Office of Aging operates around the county. They have since reopened, but are operating on a limited basis with sharply restricted capacity, in order to keep clients safe.
As such, they can't serve everyone's needs, Paulson said.
The initiative's mainstay is Debbie Groff, whom Paulson described as "the face of the center." Groff handles outreach, helps people get connected and even participates in the classes.
Ellen Weekes handles Virtual Connections' health and wellness programming. Paulson said she herself handles the technology aspect.
LCOA Virtual Connections
Virtual Connections, Lancaster County's virtual senior center, is open to county residents age 55 and up. Participants should have a computer with internet service, although some activities can be done by telephone.
Participants access the Zoom platform through a portal set up by the Office of Aging. Groff walks people through the process and every effort has been made to make it as simple as possible, Paulson said.
Some activities can be accessed by phone, for those who don't have computers, but it's a toll call, so a phone plan with unlimited long distance is recommended.
Any time materials are needed to play a game or do an activity, the Office sends them to participants. If you win a prize at Bingo, that's mailed out, too.
Jackie Sandblade said she and Eric have met new people through the activities. Groff and the other organizers and instructors make sure everyone gets involved and enjoys themselves.
"They make everybody laugh," she said.
There are more classes coming, including hand drumming and art. Meanwhile, Paulson is looking into ways of making Virtual Connections more accessible to seniors with limited means.
She's seeking out businesses with late-model computers or laptops they might be willing to donate, and hopes eventually to be able to offer less expensive or subsidized Internet service.
Senior centers are offering interim virtual programming in other counties, but in general it will wind down once the pandemic ends. That's not the case with Virtual Connections, Paulson said.
"This is permanent," she said.
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