'So Deep And So Rich': Seniors Stay Connected Via Their New Life On Zoom

Apr 4, 2021
Originally published on April 11, 2021 9:20 am

Last March, I visited a senior center in Manhattan on its last day of programming before lockdown forced everything in New York City to a grinding halt. At that point in the pandemic, we were flying blind — elbow-bumping instead of handshaking, but not wearing masks, even in cramped indoor settings.

I rode my bike to DOROT on the Upper West Side with a lump in my throat, fearing that maybe I was an unknowing vector of the virus. (A traveling group of coughing a cappella singers was performing and my fears abated that I'd be the one to get them sick.)

I met a group of women in a weekly memoir class, right as the director broke the news that the center was closing because of the coronavirus.

It came as a blow to the women, especially for Yvonne Rossetti, who was 65 years old at the time.

"I think depression is a killer, and certainly many of us are here because maybe we battle depression," she'd said to the room. "This place is a lifeboat."

"Yes, it is a lifeboat," the women agreed.

As a year went by, I wondered how these women were doing. If they got sick, did they make it through? If they were experiencing that loneliness they'd spoken so fearfully of when I met them that day.

I reached back out and they invited me to their weekly class on Zoom. While many of us are suffering from "Zoom fatigue," I found these women were invigorated by the virtual platform, and just as committed as ever to their meeting every week to discuss their writing.

Adellar Greenhill, 78, told me about her recollection of that day last March.

"Before we knew about Zoom and what was gonna happen, it was like one of those feelings in the pit of your stomach," she said. "There's an intimacy to Zoom that we never would have anticipated."

The women got some coaching on how to use Zoom and, after a few initial hiccups, began meeting remotely each week.

Christine Graf, 75, said they were already used to sharing personal details in their writing. Being able to see a window into each other's homes felt like an added level of closeness.

"It just seemed like a very natural progression," Graf said. "It felt good."

Many of them did get COVID-19 and survived the virus. One member of the memoir group got sick with cancer. She managed to get her memoir published right before her death, a triumph for the whole group. They celebrated her life together over Zoom.

"We're making that connection every single week, which is great, because a lot of us live alone, and otherwise we don't connect," said 74-year-old Marsha Cohen.

"We are not disconnected by social distance, rather I will say, more connected," Sipra Roy, 79, added.

I particularly wanted to know what Yvonne Rossetti felt, a year into this technological experiment. "Zoom created a paradigm shift for loneliness," she said. "Life was normal with this. And so deep and so rich with this."

Wendy Handler, who works for the senior center, said that when the memoir group started up three years ago it was only supposed to last for four months, but the women refused to abandon it.

"We're so thrilled that you're still here," Handler said. "And that this group means as much to you today as it did when we met in person."

They're hoping to convene in the real world, someday soon they said, hopefully in Central Park on a sunny day.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

At this point in the pandemic, many of us are suffering - and how - from Zoom fatigue - many, not all. WNYC's Gwynne Hogan checked in with a group of senior citizens who switch their weekly gathering to Zoom at the start of the pandemic, and now they say they're closer than ever.

GWYNNE HOGAN, BYLINE: Last March, I visited a senior center in Manhattan. At that point in a pandemic, we were flying blind. We were elbow-bumping instead of shaking hands but not wearing masks. I rode my bike to the DOROT Center with a lump in my throat, fearing maybe I was an unknowing vector of the virus.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing) To reach.

Guys, we're going to sing...

HOGAN: But I got there, and there was a crowd of coughing college kids on tour with their a cappella group, performing to the small crowd of seniors.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing) To reach the unreachable star.

HOGAN: I popped in to a memoir writing class.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

HOGAN: It was a group of about a dozen women. They'd been meeting weekly for a couple of years at that point. I arrived right as the director of the center, Mark Meridy, broke the news. The center was closing. It was March 11, 2020.

MARK MERIDY: We need to suspend our on-site programming here at DOROT for a period of time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Starting when?

MERIDY: Starting today.

HOGAN: The news was a blow for the group, especially for Yvonne Rossetti.

YVONNE ROSSETTI: I think depression is a killer.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.

ROSSETTI: And certainly, many of us are here because maybe we battle depression, or this place is a lifeboat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It is a lifeboat.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.

HOGAN: Over the course of the pandemic, I wondered how these women were doing - if they got sick, if they got better, if they were experiencing that loneliness they'd spoken so fearfully of when I met them that day. I reached back out, and they invited me to their weekly class on Zoom.

Hello, everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Hi.

HOGAN: Adellar Greenhill told me about her recollection of that day.

ADELLAR GREENHILL: Before we knew about Zoom and what was going to happen, it was like one of those feelings in the pit of your stomach.

HOGAN: The women got some coaching on how to log in to Zoom, and the group started reconvening regularly online.

GREENHILL: There's an intimacy to Zoom that we never would have anticipated, I don't think.

HOGAN: Christine Graf says they were already used to sharing personal details in their writing.

CHRISTINE GRAF: And then to meet again in our own homes, it felt good.

HOGAN: Many of them did get COVID, and they all survived. But Marsha Cohen says one member of the memoir group got sick with cancer.

MARSHA COHEN: She said, I need help finishing my memoir. I'm getting this memoir published.

HOGAN: She did get it published right before her death. The group was able to celebrate her life over Zoom.

COHEN: We're making that connection every single week, which is great because a lot of us live alone. And, you know, otherwise, we don't connect.

SIPRA ROY: We are not disconnected by social distance - rather, I will say, more connected.

HOGAN: That was Sipra Roy. I particularly wanted to know what Yvonne Rossetti felt a year into this technological experiment. She says she's on board, too.

ROSSETTI: Zoom created a paradigm shift for loneliness. It was like life is normal with this and so deep and so rich with this.

HOGAN: Before I left the session, Wendy Handler, who works for the senior center, wanted to add something too.

WENDY HANDLER: This group was supposed to end many times along the way.

(LAUGHTER)

HANDLER: We're so thrilled that you're still here and that this group means as much to you today, if not more, than it did when we met in person.

HOGAN: They say they're hoping to convene in the real world someday soon, hopefully in Central Park on a sunny day. For NPR News, I'm Gwynne Hogan in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.