LIVINGSTON, NJ — As senior citizens across the world battled against isolation over the last five months due to their population’s vulnerability to the novel coronavirus, Livingston’s Senior Youth and Leisure Services (SYLS) department has kept local seniors connected through virtual fitness programs that are growing in popularity and will continue into the fall.
When the state suddenly shut down in March as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, the team at SYLS quickly shook off the initial state of shock and was determined to find a way to continue its mission of bringing the community together. Less than a week into the shutdown, SYLS had scheduled its first senior fitness class via Zoom and has been hosting more than a dozen weekly classes ever since.
In addition to being pleasantly surprised by the participation of more than 30 seniors in many of these virtual fitness programs throughout the spring and summer, Liliana Branquinho—Senior & Adult Enrichment and Special Events Supervisor for SYLS— also said that “the comradery that has come out of it” has been “the most amazing thing.” In fact, Branquinho noted that many participants have said the SYLS programs have been “lifesaving” during the pandemic.
“It’s just been incredible, the support that you have within the classes,” she said. “A lot of these people already knew each other from seeing each other in class, but now this is their only way to connect. Before classes even start, people have been logging in 10 minutes before just to start chatting amongst themselves. It’s been so nice to keep up with how they’re doing, how they’re families are doing and if they need anything, which in the beginning was such a big thing.”
Although SYLS typically hosts nearly 40 senior programs throughout the week—including classes focused on both fitness and enrichment—the recreation department has successfully retained many of its regular participants by continuing to host the classes that typically have the highest enrollment, such as Chair Yoga, Zumba Gold and Cardio Fusion.
During a time when many seniors have been struggling with feelings of seclusion and anxiety over venturing out in public, dozens of senior citizens in Livingston are not only being physically active, but also socializing with their peers multiple times a week thanks to SYLS.
“You would think that the classes I’m running are all adult classes and that only the younger adults are attending them, but no,” said Branquinho. “You’re talking about mostly seniors that are in their 80s. They gave it a try, and I am so proud of that.
“I did have people who were a little reluctant because either they didn’t have a computer or the computer wasn’t updated or they didn’t have the space in their house, but that’s only a handful of people…This was new to everyone, and seniors can have a little bit more of a difficult time; but we helped some of them over the phone and tested it out before class. Between their families and myself helping, it was a great success, and we now have people in their 80s taking Zoom classes weekly or multiple times a week.”
Due to the social aspect of these programs, Branquinho said the department was also able to learn whether the seniors needed any assistance in the early days of the pandemic for things such as obtaining groceries or securing transportation.
“It’s been amazing to experience that with everyone and to see them on a weekly basis to make sure that everyone is doing okay,” she said. “They’re sharing their life and how they’re doing and their feelings or concerns about what’s happening, and then they’re transitioning to a class that lifts their spirits up. People have told me it’s been lifesaving to some of them, so it really makes you feel good about being able to so quickly transition into a situation like this.”
With only a few weeks left in the summer schedule, SYLS is prepared to continue these virtual programs in the fall while also looking into the possibility of safely hosting some of the lower-impact classes in small groups on site.
According to Branquinho, SYLS is currently assessing the results of a survey distributed to participants in order to garner input on the future of the program. Now that the seniors have become acclimated to the virtual model, however, Branquinho said many of them have expressed a desire to remain online until it is deemed safe to return in person.
“All they want is to get together,” she said, adding that a hybrid version of certain fitness programs could also be an option in addition to online social events. “Truth be told, they’re craving that social connectedness and being with others, but they understand the risk, so they want to stay online…
“It would be great for a miracle to happen, but I really don't think that's going to happen for quite some time. We want to continue to offer these things virtually and try to reach out to those that are still intimidated or having a hard time and try to bring them on board so they can experience the benefits of it. Even though they're not physically together, this is creating a feeling like they're still a part of something.”
Even through the current pandemic, SYLS is determined to continue serving as “the hub that connects people to each other,” Branquinho added.
“That's our primary function as a recreation department,” she said. “We are all about creating connectivity and socializing. We’re uniting people, we're bringing people together—that's our core.”
Helping SYLS to fulfill its mission is a team of qualified instructors who Branquinho said “immediately jumped into this whole thing” and have all been “spectacular” in ensuring the success of the online programs.
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