Chris Winder, an active senior, is often seen out and about in Mountain View. When the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order hit, however, she was suddenly stuck at home like everyone else.
During the months spent quarantining, Winder was grateful for the company of her virtual friends.
For the past seven years, this gaggle of seniors has enjoyed twice-weekly programs such as music, word games, trivia, reminiscing, travel stories and, of course, bingo. Members of the group – dubbed the “Over the Hill Gang” – started out as complete strangers and have grown to become good friends.
Winder is part of the TeleVisit community, which uses Android tablets to connect seniors within the community. Unlike other virtual senior communities, TeleVisit does not require any knowledge of technology, meeting the seniors where they are at. The tablet automatically wakes up at 8 a.m., displays photos throughout the day, and goes to sleep at 8 p.m. At the appropriate time, it rings to remind Winder to join an interactive activity with her friends.
Comedian Ronny Chieng described providing tech support to his mom over the phone as “the most excruciating form of torture.” Whether people are receiving or giving tech support, it can be painfully frustrating. The goal of the TeleVisit community is to be accessible to all seniors, letting them focus on building relationships without technological barriers.
During the pandemic, members have joined the community by having a TeleVisit staff member connect the tablet to their Wi-Fi from outside the home, requiring the user only to plug it in. From there, participants join Zoom calls by pressing only one button when the tablet rings.
Several faith-based communities, which often have many older adults who are not adept at technology, use TeleVisit to connect their members. John Lehman, lay member at Los Altos United Methodist Church, brought the program to a group of parishioners. He produces an entertaining program called “Johnny’s Jukebox,” where he plays snippets of hits from the 1930s to the 1970s, interspersed with his wry wit and encyclopedic knowledge about the music.
TeleVisit also has been used as an avenue for meal delivery programs to check in with their recipients who use regular phones. Santa Clara County’s Senior Nutrition Program created the “Food, Friends and Fun” project to keep seniors connected during the pandemic. With the collaboration, they were able to distribute workbooks of activities, games and bingo cards to seniors alongside their meals. A host from the county would call a group of recipients, connecting them to an audio conference without the need for them to remember when to join or dial any numbers. This program has reached a multitude of cultures with sessions conducted in English, Spanish and Chinese.
The pioneering solution behind TeleVisit communities was developed by longtime Los Altos resident Ken Ebbs, a software engineer at NASA Ames Research Center. Ebbs created the software eight years ago when the idea of virtual group activities through tablets was in its infancy. He is a quadriplegic who sustained injuries from a mountain biking accident and fought back courageously so that he can work full-time again, typing with just his knuckles because he lost the use of his fingers. Ebbs’ wife, Deborah Baker, is well-known in the community – she served as past president and is a current board member of the Festival of Lights Parade Association.
It is important to consider accessibility to ensure older adults of any level can be included in virtual group activities, which will continue to be an important way to connect them even after the pandemic is over.
Wesley Cheng is founder and executive director of TeleVisit.org, a nonprofit organization that has been conducting virtual group activities for older adults over the past 10 years. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit televisit.org.