Virtual Senior Academy not just for seniors
COVID-19Jewish Healthcare Foundation

Virtual Senior Academy not just for seniors

Online platform seeks to enlarge base by providing programming for younger users.

Filomena Varvaro takes a class on the Virtual Senior Academy. Photo courtesy of Jewish Healthcare Foundation
Filomena Varvaro takes a class on the Virtual Senior Academy. Photo courtesy of Jewish Healthcare Foundation

A popular online platform for senior citizens is broadening its reach in light of COVID-19. While the Virtual Senior Academy, launched by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation in August 2017, remains a tool for Allegheny County seniors to connect and learn through video conferencing, efforts are underway to expand the technology to include intergenerational activities.

“When COVID started to escalate in our community, we had internal conversations and decided to put a lot of effort and resources behind the program,” said Mara Leff, director of innovation at the Jewish Healthcare Foundation. “There was this idea of can we bring younger folks into the program to have interactions with older adults? Everyone is isolated right now, everyone is feeling the effects of the quarantine, so we were looking to try new things.”

With 62 facilitators and more than 1,000 users, VSA was designed as an online opportunity for learning and socializing. Of the 26 current courses being offered, subjects range from printmaking with household materials to introduction to social psychology. Depending on the facilitator and the material presented, courses can last several weeks. Other lessons are simply one-offs.

This summer, VSA will transition from its home at the Jewish Healthcare Foundation to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. The move, which is intended to increase usage of VSA, is aided by a $175,000 grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation. Even prior to relocation, however, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, one of several program partners, has increased its involvement in the platform. Through courses and informational sessions taught by staff from AgeWell at the JCC and the Center for Loving Kindness, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh is striving to reach a potentially isolated audience.

Beth Schmidt, 57, began using VSA almost two years ago after seeing a notice posted at the Shaler North Hills Library. The flyer mentioned topics including astronomy, travel and dance. Schmidt returned home, registered, “which was very easy to do,” and began taking classes online, she said. Prior to the pandemic, she attended “a few a week. Now, I take a lot more because there isn’t a lot to do.”

Given the stay-at-home order, VSA has become a good resource for socialization, said Schmidt, who participates in “ ‘Coffee Connect,’ where you can talk to other people. It’s very interesting.”

Run by Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh, the coffee shop-based program asks participants to refrain from using their devices and engage in face-to-face conversations. Obviously, because of the pandemic, the possibility of meeting up in a local cafe doesn’t currently exist, however, the recurring course still encourages participants to meet up (albeit digitally), have a conversation and combat loneliness.

Along with “Coffee Connect,” Schmidt has enjoyed other VSA offerings, such as those dedicated to managing stress and promoting good health.

An hour-long course last week, presented in partnership with Venture Outdoors, was titled “Fit with a Physician,” and featured Dr. Terence Starz, who offered medical advice and reflections on area foliage and wildlife, while strolling through Mellon Park on a socially distanced walk.

Schmidt said she’s enjoyed VSA because of its “welcoming” nature.

“It’s a wonderful free resource, and our end goal is to get it to as many people as we can, and to help them feel more connected and engaged with their community,” said Leff.

In an April 2020 report from Pennsylvania’s Department of Aging, the PA Council on Aging called VSA a “viable option for those looking to connect virtually,” and noted that “the free service offers the opportunity for older adults to teach classes themselves, continue their learning and develop connections with others of similar interest from the comfort of their own home or residence. Connecting older adults to resources so that they can access these networks will reduce the instances of social isolation.”

Zackary Zelazny teaches an astronomy class on the Virtual Senior Academy. Photo courtesy of Jewish Healthcare Foundation

Councilperson Erika Strassburger, District 8, has promoted VSA since its inception. Now, amidst the COVID-19 crisis, she is thinking about the program and its ability to foster community in new ways.

When the stay-at-home order went into place Strassburger began hearing from parents “who were thrust into this new world of basically having two jobs: their full-time job, if they were fortunate enough to have a job and be able to work from home, and then caring for their children and their schooling,” she said.

Because of VSA’s platform, and its catalogue of live diverse content, Strassburger reached out to Leff and inquired about expanding the demographic.

Leff agreed, and with help from city officials and local partners, VSA broadened its base.

Since March 23, 92 people have joined VSA’s more than 1,000 previously registered users, and in some cases parents have created accounts for children as young as 5 years old, noted Scotland Huber, chief communications officer at Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

Child-centered teachings on the platform remain limited, but there is a push toward increasing age-appropriate lessons. One offering currently listed is “GRAN: Intergenerational Story Corner,” a 45-minute course featuring readings and activities dedicated to a particular topic. On May 8, the subject is respect, so apart from enjoying passages from R. J. Palacio’s “Wonder,” a New York Times bestselling children’s novel, participants have the opportunity to make a bookmark, color downloadable images or write responses to prompts about respecting others.

Efforts are still underway to transition VSA into a tool that’s both usable for senior enrichment and child-directed engagement, and Strassburger is optimistic about the path ahead.

Said the councilperson, “This is going to be sort of a one-stop shop for all sorts of neat classes for all ages.” PJC

Adam Reihnerz can be reached at

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