Stepping Up to Respond to COVID-19 Isolation for Seniors
Stonewall Community Development Corporation is creating and operating a network of virtual homes for senior center partners who have had to shut down their facilities during the COVID-19 crisis. We have built each of them their own unique online “center homepage” on our online platform, Stonewall Village NYC. We are providing full access to the platform’s interactive technologies, hosting their interactive meetings and events, and providing technical support and onboarding training for their administrators, facilitators and constituencies, at no charge.
This is allowing the financially-strapped centers to reconnect with their isolated seniors, to resume interactive programs like classes and meetings and to provide some direct services. The centers are also sharing some programming with each other, easing their burden of trying to recreate their full rosters of programming online.
We have brought on additional part time staff and greatly expanded our technology licenses, above our budgetary capacity, to enable us to perform this additional work. Because we could not plan for this unforeseen emergency, there are no funds dedicated to cover these extraordinary costs. We have been depleting our operations budget to do this work. Additionally, because we have only two full time staff, the executive director has pivoted from the majority of his fundraising and development duties to meet the complex demands of this emergency.
We are doing this work — providing desperately needed social connection through a secure closed interactive community platform – because we know that isolation kills, and we are in a position to help those who would otherwise be isolated. We need your support to maintain operating continuity while we continue providing this critical emergency service to our partners through April, May, June and July.
Being in the Right Place at the Right Time with an Emergency Response
Our mission at Stonewall Community Development Corporation is to see LGBTQ older adults and their allies in safe, welcoming housing they can afford, with access to health and mental health services that meet their unique needs. We serve all New Yorkers, but work to ensure that housing and health services strategies and solutions do not exclude the LGBTQ community.
As part of our work, after two years of testing and development, we launched Stonewall Village NYC, a “virtual village” platform in December of 2019. Through a combination of interactive online technology and live meet-ups, the platform allows seniors, many of whom are isolated at home, to:
Connect with others in the village
Participate in interactive meetings and events
Form self-directed member interest groups
Increase their skills and become “ambassadors,” who actively influence the
development of the virtual community
Stonewall Village NYC has robust, interactive technology for its members, including message forums, HIPAA-compliant VSee video chat and Zoom for group meetings, classes and events. The vision was always been to combine the online activity with live meet-ups and events. As part of our rollout, we had been doing live monthly events with partner senior centers throughout the City since December.
Supporting Other Senior Centers Throughout the Emergency
When NYS On Pause was implemented, these partners, who were not familiar with interactive virtual programming, suddenly found their constituencies forcefully homebound and isolated. Stonewall Community Development Corporation was ready, not only with the technology, but with two years’ of experience in conducting Test User Groups, which had involved a total of 56 users in three guided sessions each. The TUGS phase allowed us to hone the technology for best user experience for older adults and develop protocols for onboarding seniors, identifying and solving technical challenges and crafting experiential strategies to help the seniors discover and master the benefits of the technology at their own pace and comfort levels.
In response to the lockdown, we quickly pivoted and expanded our staff and tech licenses in order to create and operate these five virtual centers on our platform for our partners, opening up to them free supported access to all of our technologies. Stonewall Village NYC homepages enable senior centers to re-connect with their constituents through interactive programming and to safely resume some direct and confidential services.
Technical training for administrators and facilitators at each senior center is a key component. They need to be comfortable enough with the technology to convince their constituents to use it. Each of the partner center communities has its own culture. The path to engagement with the technology is different for each, and we work with them to develop those culturally-specific onramps. This work is facilitated by the existing relationships we had established with these centers’ constituencies through the monthly on-premises events we had been conducting since December.
The virtual center partners’ meetings, classes and programs are hosted on our platform, and we always have staff standing by to offer immediate onboarding and technical support to any senior having trouble fully activating and employing the technology. If the issue is complicated or too time consuming to navigate during the meeting, we provide them our email and do a followup by phone. We are working quickly to create data capture systems to track the processes that bring constituents to full participation.
Measuring Our Impact Since the Emergency Started
We have built virtual senior centers for five partners and additional engagement opportunities for non-profits and independent artists and teachers who serve seniors, allowing them to re-establish regular class and event schedules through our platform.
From March 15 – April 23. we hosted 113 zoom trainings, meetings and classes with 1444 attendees from 136 different zip codes in New York City.
For internet security purposes, attendees must complete a unique registration for each and every event they attend. Our staff hosts fill out a data capture sheet on every meeting, including statistics on numbers of registrants, tech issues of individuals and their resolutions, and de-brief notes on how interactive participation in that particular meeting could be improved. We also enter potential longitudinal data like how many users entered with cameras off, how many of them turned them on during the meeting, etc.
We feel strongly that culling data in order to develop protocols for our onboarding and support practices is a critical component of this emergency service provision. These interactive technology skills will be important to seniors long after this lockdown is over. There is a strong possibility that this is the first wave of the pandemic. Even in normal social circumstances, physical Isolation can become a fact of life for an older adult overnight. Additionally, as the use of telemedicine becomes more widespread, familiarity and comfort with this way of communicating will become imperative to bridging socio-economic, racial and age divides to access full and appropriate services.
Therefore, in addition to creating and hosting these emergency interactive communications, we are also working to establish an evidence-based best practices compendium for continuing and sharing this work in the future. Foci include:
Challenges and barriers to access that include technological learning needs for both senior clients and the centers that serve them
Technical and emotional support needs for program delivery personnel including facilitators, teachers and artists
Prevalence of substandard equipment in the older adult population that prevents interacive communications
Standard “quick fixes” for technology issues and longer term solutions
Activities and strategies that promote maximum engagement
Role of the caregiver
The Best Possible Data
To achieve this fully, it is important to hire a data specialist firm immediately to help us make sure we are capturing all of the most relevant data, developing automated unique qualifiers so that we can be tracking an individual’s progress over a series of meetings and be translating the data we are capturing into best practices protocols. The goal is to allow us to create longitudinal data about use habits e.g how many meetings did it take for A16 to turn her camera on during the meeting? Or which meetings are creating the most conversions to full participation?
The National Opinion Research Center at University of Chicago has agreed to partner with us under a for-hire contract.