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Online activities platform caters to homebound seniors

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. >> Most mornings, Joyce Lindsay flips on the TV in her living room and starts moving. She shakes to the music during Zumba classes, stretches her limbs wide during yoga flows and eventually stops for a moment of calm.

Sometimes she does as many as four classes, nearly three hours of working out. She said the exercise helps ease the pain she feels from her arthritis.

“I’ve been inside so much since the coronavirus, but now I feel so alive,” Lindsay said. “I have gotten my life back.”

The 70-year-old began taking online classes in March through the Area Agency on Aging Pasco-Pinellas. The program is funded by Florida’s Department of Elder Affairs to help ease the social isolation of seniors caused by restrictions put in place for the pandemic, said Ann Marie Winter, the agency’s executive director.

“Social isolation is not going away,” Winter said. “It was an issue before the pandemic, it was an issue during the pandemic and it will continue to be an issue after the pandemic.”

Many of the agency’s clients are homebound and weren’t able to go to senior centers or join adult day care programs before the pandemic, she said.

“So this is an opportunity for those clients to participate as well, even when COVID is hopefully no longer an issue,” Winter said.

The online platform Uniper offers taped and livestream courses on topics ranging from travel and cooking to exercise and meditation. Participants can also interact with other viewers, turning their screens on and chatting in various peer-led discussions, Winter said.

“It’s kind of like Zoom but it’s made specifically for seniors,” she said.

The program’s server is secure, and there are no commercials or ads shown on the platform, Winter said. The agency is also working with the Senior Actors Guild and Education Services of Clearwater to bring two performances to the platform: Defying Gravity, which focuses on preventing falls, and Phoney Baloney, where the topic is scams. In addition, the agency plans to use the platform for its own programming.

“It’s something we’ve been thinking about for some time,” Winter said. “It took a while to find a program that was specifically geared to seniors and had an interactive portion to it.”

So far, 109 clients have signed up, said Peggy Herlache, the program’s manager. At the end of January, the agency began filling the 170 funded spots. A monthly membership and setup of the box at the client’s home are included.

Seniors in Hillsborough County can take advantage of the classes and programming as well, said Patty Suarez, spokeswoman for the Senior Connection Center. The center began signing up clients for its 265 spots at the end of December and still has 75 to 80 spots left.

“Once the program is installed, our clients love it,” Suarez said.

The center hopes to create some of its own programming on the platform as well, Suarez said. Some ideas include a chatroom to talk about senior issues, health and wellness classes and presentations for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

Many seniors will likely still prefer in-person activities, but there’s continued interest in virtual programming, said Jeff Johnson, state director for AARP. The organization has had thousands of seniors participate in virtual town halls and other virtual events over the course of the pandemic.

“I think there are people who have always wanted this as an option,” he said. “And certainly there are people who don’t have other options right now.”

The pandemic has forced some to acclimate to Zoom, FaceTime and other forms of communication, Johnson said. And now, taking online classes might feel less daunting for some seniors.

“My sense is that a lot of people are still being very cautious about doing anything in public, and there’s still obviously a need to connect,” he said. “There’s a need to keep your mind and body active to keep moving and learning and growing.”

Virtual activities and programs have helped close that gap, Johnson said.

“I think there are going to be some people who continue to do online stuff, either in place of or along with in-person activities,” he said.

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