A Virtual Senior Center Spreads Across the US


“When we see each other, we say, ‘how are you?’ And if someone is missing you wonder if he or she is sick and you find out.”

You might not walk down a city street to meet a friend or go to your local community center without fixing yourself up a bit first. So if you never go out, where’s the incentive?

New Yorkers Don and Marie Stockman say that this sort of gentle social peer pressure may be the most valuable aspect of their participation in the Virtual Senior Center, a video-chat service that links them and nearly 400 other seniors, many of them isolated and physically challenged, in five cities. VSC provides two-way, interactive online classes, discussions and activities in which the Stockmans can see and talk to their fellow network members, and the network members can see and talk to them.

“If you’re just going to look at the four walls all day, who gives a damn how you look,” says Don Stockman, 76, whose activities and movement are limited by a heart condition and other ailments. “But when you participate in a two-way class, you have 25 people looking at you and you will think twice before you look shabby because if you don’t, they will say, ‘what’s wrong – do you not feel well?’ ”

The VSC system, which was designed and is offered by New York City-based Selfhelp Community Services, Inc., has provided seniors for the past six years with a simplified computer and internet access system that lets them pick from a menu of some 30 instructor-led classes and other activities, among them art, foreign languages, memoir writing, science, travel, current events, armchair yoga, Tai Chi and games. Participants take virtual tours of galleries at MoMA and other museums and discuss individual paintings with museum educators, explore the arcane intricacies of the election process, play Scrabble face to face, and through it all, get to know one another well, however far they may be geographically from one another.

Nearly 400 seniors now participate in the VSC in New York City, Chicago, Baltimore, San Diego and Pittsburgh, and a few scattered users participate from other locations.

A Senior Center at Home — Bridging Distances

“It has changed my life,” Marie Stockman says of VSC. She estimates that she and Don use the service 12 to15 hours per week. “It stimulates my brain, has allowed me to make new friends, and motivates us to keep going online,” Marie says. “You have to plan each day to see what’s on the computer and what you want to view or participate in. It forces you to get organized.”

One of Marie’s favorite classes teaches her internet and computer use. “Through this program, I learned how to send and receive emails, use YouTube, search on Google, and do Facetime,” Marie says. “I can go on Facebook and see my children even if I can’t visit them in person. If I have to go to the doctor, I can look and see where he or she is located and what type of facility he or she is at.”

Don likes trivia games and “You Be the Judge,” a game show–themed class that asks participants to figure out how judges have ruled on actual legal cases.

The interactive shows have fostered a community of individuals who care about one another, Marie says. “When we see each other, we say, ‘how are you?’ And if someone is missing you wonder if he or she is sick and you find out. We have a nurse who is knowledgeable and whom you can ask health questions when you see her in the class. She connects us with information she’s learned from the Mayo Clinic.”

While many interactive classes are led by volunteers from community-based organizations such as museums or opera companies, some VSC participants lead classes themselves. Lynda King, a 68-year-old retired and homebound New Yorker, has led fellow participants in isometric exercises and taught them tips on home finance and household management, such as how to use plants to ward off insect invaders (hint: chopped up bay leaves keep away the ants), save on utility bills and live on a budget.

SelfHelp has loaned many VCS participants all-in-one, simplified touchscreen computers with a senior-friendly interface, as well as providing free access to VSC programming and technical support, and internet access.

Seniors who are part of the program also get unlimited technical support by phone or online, plus Skype and email accounts.

How to Get Involved in VCS

New participants theoretically could join in from anywhere in the country, Selfhelp Innovations Executive Director David Dring says, but if you are not part of a community-backed program, you must provide your own high-speed internet connection, your own standard laptop or desktop computer, and pay $60 a month for programming costs.

If you’re interested in participating, email Selfhelp at or call 718-559-4460.


  • Wayne Caswell

    The video below shows the importance of not isolating our elderly, whether that’s at home or in the community setting of an assisted living facility. After learning how to find the power button and use the Apple iPad, these true seniors have become avid e-mail, Facebook, Pinterest and Tumblr users. Enjoy.

  • Lona Stein

    It sounds like a good idea and I can definitely see where it would make life more interesting.
    I can see a particular group – seniors living alone, with either no local family or seniors who
    have no social contact at all benefiting greatly Those isolating factors definitely play a
    large part in developing poor health and a shorter life expectancy. Depression is a given
    under these circumstances. So certainly bringing access to peers and offering an array
    of interesting subjects to learn about is a huge boon. Games of all kind offer so many
    options for a happier view of life. The greatest side effect of this program, that I can see,
    is creating a reason to smile and hopefully even laugh.

    What I see as a very great obstacle is the cost. I have met many lonely seniors for whom
    $80,00 represents serious chunk of their income. Perhaps living in a suburban or even rural
    area is a lot less expensive but here in New York City just basic needs like food (even with
    Food Stamps), rent, healthcare copay and medication leave little for extras – entertainment,
    clothing , household products even transportation. Those seniors are most likely the people who are the most in need of a program like this. The unfortunate side effect is that very often
    these programs become favorite recommendations of aids to seniors and suddenly instead
    of being a stimulating outlet the site becomes a Whining Center. Then the majority of participants are not interested in the opportunity to learn and make friends but rather to discuss with their new audience the status of their health and what aches, what doesn’t function
    properly and what functions they are no longer able to perform.

    If there is a group offering the same help to those seniors I would love to know about them.

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