Alumna Betsy Strausberg is a retired nurse and health educator whose social calendar is usually packed with get-togethers with friends, trips to visit her 9-year-old granddaughter in Denver and other activities. She says she’d rarely spend a day at home. But after March 17, when a stay-at-home order went into effect for six Bay Area counties to prevent the spread of COVID-19, her life suddenly got quieter. The 73-year-old lives alone and says one bright spot’s been the courses she takes at San Francisco State University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).
“I need to be challenged, and I need intellectual stimulation,” Strausberg said. “If I didn’t have these classes there would be something missing. I read articles and watch TV, but there’s something special about a learning environment.”
In early March, recognizing the risks to the OLLI population, OLLI Director Kathy Bruin, in consultation with Associate Dean Gail Dawson, canceled scheduled courses. By end of March had pivoted to an online learning environment.
The organization is a membership-based community of adults aged 50 or older engaged in learning through interest groups, events at the University, outings and classes covering a wide range of topics. Bruin and her assistant Lena Chiu offered several abridged three-week versions via Zoom, starting with Soul Music’s Golden Age, The Philosophy of Everyday Life and a film class called Global Lens before adding three more. The organization also launched a free speaker series April 1 that’s open to the public. In May, OLLI offered 10 mini courses, and the summer session will run its usual six weeks. All remaining sessions in 2020 will be held via Zoom.
“Our members are mostly between 65 and 85 years old, and they have adapted remarkably. I think we’re all feeling proud of ourselves to have made this shift to an online model,” Bruin said.
That’s not to say there haven’t been hiccups, such as students forgetting to mute their computers, internet connectivity issues and the general hurdles that come with adapting to new technology. “One of the best aspects is that people get to see each other on Zoom, and the classes are still excellent. Even in this new format, it feels like OLLI,” Bruin says.
For Strausberg, the classes have been a welcome distraction from the grim news about the coronavirus. She took the class about soul music. “I couldn’t sit still. I wanted to get up and dance, and it was very experiential,” she said. She even rolled up the rug to dance.
Taking classes and connecting with peers on a regular basis during the pandemic is good for both the mind and body, says professor and coordinator of SF State’s Gerontology program, Darlene Yee-Melichar.
“Research shows that isolation and loneliness are linked to undesirable health risks for seniors. These adverse health outcomes are often physical and/or psychological in nature,” she said. “For example, seniors may experience anxiety, cognitive decline (e.g. memory loss), depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, weakened immune system and early death during self-isolation.”
Virtual programming helps seniors connect to content, teachers and classmates while reducing the risks of contracting and spreading COVID-19, Yee-Melichar adds. Staying connected during the COVID-19 crisis is important in lifting spirits and staying healthy for seniors.
Bruin says her weekly newsletters create continuity with members, and include a link where people can request support, such as grocery shopping. So far, no one has requested assistance, but several have signed up to help others if needed. And members have also express gratitude.
“People are sending me notes saying they’re so happy that the classes continue. It really does feel kind of normal to attend a class with some of the instructors they know, and it’s as engaging as it is in person,” she said. “In some ways it’s nicer in that they have their own personal slideshow in front of them.”
— Jamie Oppenheim