A Little Black Box That Fights Loneliness

While the pandemic has brought it into sharper focus, loneliness and social isolation have long been major issues facing older adults. The CDC estimates that one-quarter of American seniors are socially isolated, putting them at a higher risk of everything from anxiety and depression to premature death.

At the Jewish Federation-supported Jewish Family and Children’s Service, they’re all too aware of the “loneliness epidemic” facing their seniors and the barriers that keep people from accessing social connections.

“We do a lot of programming for seniors at the Brodsky Center in Bala Cynwyd,” said Paul Groch, JFCS’ vice president of operations. “But with an older population, not everyone can travel easily. We were actually looking for a solution to help connect people even before the pandemic started.”

For Groch’s team, the solution came from an Israeli startup called Uniper, which uses technology to help seniors maintain an active social life from the comfort of their homes.

Uniper provides a small device — similar to a Roku or an Apple TV — that connects to both on-demand programming (concerts, ballets, news, Russian-language material) and live events like classes or social groups.

“It’s a simple box and a simple remote,” Groch said. “You can’t get lost. It’s a simple solution for folks that aren’t used to using technology.”

JFCS’ Bala Cynwyd headquarters now has a broadcasting center where it livecasts events to Uniper. Since the live events are with people in the Philadelphia region, the seniors have the opportunity to see familiar faces. It’s this type of casual interaction — a conversation with our barista, a chat with coworkers — that we take for granted, but are extremely meaningful for those in isolation.

“They can see each other and be seen themselves. They take an active role in the programming instead of passively receiving the information,” Groch said.

When COVID-19 hit, Uniper access became more critical. Since Uniper’s programming can also be accessed from a web browser, Groch and his team distributed Chromebooks to seniors, along with detailed instructions about how to set them up. Later, they also sent wireless mice after realizing that many of the older adults struggled with the laptops’ trackpads.
“Again, the emphasis has to be on simple,” Groch said. “This is a population that is not used to computers.”

Since introducing Uniper, JFCS has found significant improvements in participants’ mental health. Seventy-five percent of Uniper participants improved or maintained their anxiety score, and 92% improved or maintained their depression score. Most impressively, JFCS found that 75% of Uniper users showed overall improvement across all the measured categories, compared to only 25% of those who did not use Uniper.

While Groch says they have a long way to go — the number of Philadelphia seniors who don’t have internet access at all “keeps him up at night” — he’s proud of what JFCS has achieved.

“It’s really fortuitous that we already had so much of this in place,” he said. “It made a big difference over the past few months.”

Gifts to the Jewish Federation support JFCS programs like this one. Donate today at jewishphilly.org/donate and make the world a little less lonely!

Pandemic Prompts Food Aid Revamp
Every fall, the Women’s Philanthropy affinity group at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia leads the sorting of canned and dry goods donated through the High Holiday Food Drive.

Due to the pandemic, the sort was unable to take place, but Women’s Philanthropy Chair Julie Savitch was still determined to support those in our community who struggle with food insecurity.

“I’m always looking for what I can do to help others,” Savitch said. “Especially now, when people really need it.”

At past food sorts, volunteers were encouraged to buy gift cards at local supermarkets. But because people didn’t always remember to pick them up, Savitch began buying them herself, allowing people who wished to donate the cards to get them directly from her.

Building upon the idea during the pandemic, Savitch used her platform as Women’s Philanthropy board chair to share the opportunity with more people who wanted to help. Every Zoom meeting she’s been in — and there have been many — she has used as an opportunity to advertise her service.

“It was a wonderful way for people to easily make a big impact,” she said. “I would put the link in the Zoom chat, and people would Venmo me throughout the meeting. The need for help purchasing groceries is greater than it ever has been before, which spoke to many people.”

More than 50 people have bought grocery gift cards through Savitch, totaling more than $3,000, with cards dispersed through the Jewish Federation’s Mitzvah food program. Many of the cards assisted local community members in buying food for the Thanksgiving holiday, and more will be sent to those planning their December holiday celebrations.
Savitch attributes her drive to move this project forward to a constant desire to be always doing something to help others.

“I’m a mitzvah person,” she said. “Leading up to my 50th birthday, I did one mitzvah a week. It became something of a habit for me. It’s in my DNA to always want to be doing something to help others.”

Savitch shares her work on her Instagram account: @Mitzvah_Monday. For anyone who wishes to assist her project, you can email her at jksavitch@yahoo.com. To make a donation to the Jewish Federation’s Mitzvah Food Program, visit jewishphilly.org/resources/mitzvah-food-program.