‘It’s Like Having a Whole New Family’


Anne Bertolino, 96, of Rego Park, Queens, lives by herself. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, she was forced to stay in her apartment — alone.

“I was very depressed,” she said. “I have an aide who comes for only a few hours. But then someone at the senior center called.”

Before she knew it, Selfhelp Community Services had provided her with a new computer and helped her set up a Zoom service that connected her to other seniors.

“Now, if someone would say I have to give it up, I would kill,” Bertolino said.

Called the Virtual Senior Center (VSC), the service started about eight years ago. But its membership has nearly doubled since March after the state ordered nearly everyone to remain at home to stop the spread of the virus.

“It was created with Microsoft, which was interested in programming for seniors who were isolated in their homes,” explained Stuart Kaplan, Selfhelp’s CEO. “Isolation leads to depression and mental health issues and hospitalization. Microsoft was looking for a solution to intervene before depression, and it provided the initial funding to start the program. We moved to a Zoom platform about two years ago.”

What began with 10 seniors 60 and older has now grown to nearly 400 seniors, the oldest of whom is a woman of 101. Participants sign in from many different states. To celebrate one participant’s birthday recently, guests signed in from as far away as Israel.

In the course of one week, the Virtual Senior Center offers about 70 different programs and about 35 recurring classes. Much of the service has been supported by grants, with significant funding from UJA-Federation of New York. Two years ago, VSC was expanded to include more Holocaust survivors with funding from the Jewish Funders Network. New money from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany enabled further expansion in March.

All the facilitators are volunteers, including Felice Cohen, 49, of Manhattan, who shares her advice as a professional organizer.

“When someone is 103, the clutter follows him to the end,” she said. “People get overwhelmed. You don’t know where to begin and it creates stress in your mind. And when you get older, you have health issues and there is a lot of paperwork associated with that.”

Cohen said she encourages participants to “go through their stuff…. This is an opportunity for them to talk about what they found, what it meant to them, perhaps take a picture of it, and then let it go.”

Alan Ginsberg, 64, teaches a class in American history and literature. The management consultant from the Upper West Side said he has found the class “a tremendously rewarding experience.

“What I found,” he continued, “is people who are deeply engaged and highly educated and have fascinating questions and observations. We get 30 to 35 people who tune in from Massachusetts, New York, Baltimore, Chicago and Florida. Everyone is really talkative and incisive and has wonderful personal experiences to share.”

When VSC first started, Selfhelp provided computers to those who did not have them, but Kaplan said new participants must have their own computers. There is a $60 per month charge to access all the programs, but most of the participants’ fees are paid by grants.

“One of the things we do with the VSC is dispel the myth that older adults don’t want to use technology,” Kaplan observed. “We shouldn’t let ageism creep in and say that older adults are not going to use technology. We demonstrated that early on in this program.”

Interviews with five participants — all done on Zoom — revealed that they all have become adept at using this technology.

“I made a lot of friends and I have a new family at night,” said Bertolino, a Holocaust survivor from Germany. “You have something to look forward to and that is what is so nice. It is like having a whole new family — better than family.”

She said most of the participants are women — men, she said, “think it’s beyond them.”

An exception is Henry Musat, 96, also of Rego Park, who said that when he first began attending the Selfhelp senior center at the Forest Hills Jewish Center about 10 years ago he remembers thinking, “Oh my God, everybody is so old.

“At that time I was still driving,” he recalled. “I started with the virtual programs about two years ago when social workers encouraged me to join. They put the computer in my house and it has been very useful. I use it two or three times a week. I was never big at joining, but it helps me not to be alone — and maybe I get an added education.”

Born in Germany, Musat said he finds the programs “entertaining, educational and they keep me thinking and reading, which is getting harder because my eyesight is not so great.”

He added that he is “good friends” with Fay Brandwein, 81, of Forest Hills, a survivor from Poland. She has been taking virtual classes for about three years after Selfhelp gave her a computer.

“I take at least two classes a week,” she said. “I take a book reading class and another in singing Hebrew songs.”

When Elizaveta Vigonskaya of Brooklyn retired as a nurse 10 years ago at the age of 71, she said she worried about her future.

“I was so scared,” she confessed. “I had so much energy, what would I do?”

A Holocaust survivor from the Ukraine, Vigonskaya said that Selfhelp brought her “the best happiness in my life. … At my age, I’m lucky. I realize the whole world is open [to me]. The person who runs this program should get a Nobel Prize.”

That sentiment was echoed by John Gaidis, 81, of Maspeth, a retired New York City firefighter.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “We tell each other silly jokes and try to keep each other occupied. And we get good advice from each other and share advice with others. It’s like a club. We try not to discuss politics. …It really is wonderful. We keep an eye on each other.”

Josephine Doria, 91, who lives by herself in Little Neck, Queens, summed it up, saying, “It’s so nice to have company. The screen holds the pictures of 25 people and they keep changing the faces [of participants] so we get to see everybody.”