Virtually, this online academy for local seniors aims to reduce isolation

Alvin Fineman describes himself as a 97-year-old ham who loves talking about books. Now he’s got the means to do it every month without leaving the Riverview Towers apartment he shares in Squirrel Hill with his black cat, B.C.

Outside, he uses a wheelchair, walker or cane to get around due to balance issues. At home, the onetime Chester, W.Va., department store owner can relax in a leather chair in front of his computer as online host of “Al’s Book Discussion.” It’s among a group of live, interactive classes and chat groups aimed at Pittsburgh-area computer users age 50 and older enrolled in the Virtual Senior Academy.

The free academy, sponsored by the Jewish Healthcare Foundation through $240,000 in funding, has 300 participants who, like Mr. Fineman, have joined over the past two years. There’s room for many more, and all they need to have is a computer with a webcam to engage in one of the sessions offered throughout the week on health, culture, history, current events and other topics. Technical advice in setting up a computer or tablet for interactive participation is offered to those who need it.

“Our idea is to get people talking back,” Mr. Fineman explained, referring to the group discussion that has occurred when people who can see him or one another on their computer screens pipe up with their own viewpoints. 

Mara Leff, the foundation’s program manager, emphasized the academy’s contrast with the recorded lectures that people can view and learn from via the internet. The aim is to use modern technology to stimulate connectedness among older adults, especially those who might have trouble getting out of their homes to socialize due to health, weather, caregiving responsibilities, transportation issues or other factors.

She noted the academy is among programs listed in the Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh initiative as ways of enhancing the quality of life for seniors in the region. A recent AARP study estimated that 17 percent of Americans 65 and older could be classified as socially isolated, and perhaps twice that feel lonely, with those conditions tied to greater likelihood of disease and premature death.

“We want to reduce the feelings of isolation and loneliness among seniors in our region while developing a web-based program that can be used from anywhere,” including at libraries, senior centers or public housing computer centers, Ms. Leff said. “We’re looking at more ways to promote it as a program for people who are still very active mentally, but maybe have mobility challenges.”

Ann Rosenthal, a Bloomfield artist and educator who also teaches seniors at the University of Pittsburgh Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, led the academy’s online presentation of an American art history class in the fall and found the format beneficial for both her and the participants. About seven to 10 at a time would log on to one of her 10 hour-long chats about painters from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they weren’t hesitant to share ideas and offer opinions.

“In a classroom environment, people can hide. This, in a way, is a lot more intimate,” she suggested, with everyone’s faces showing up on the screen through webcam technology and an easy ability for them to converse with her and one another.

Partners such as Osher, Carnegie Library, Carnegie Museums and Venture Outdoors have offered their expertise to the program by presenting classes, and a number of senior centers in the city and suburbs are welcoming participants on their computers. In addition to general programming, such as managing blood pressure or emergency preparedness tips, there are localized topics such as sneak peeks of Warhol Museum exhibitions or outdoor tours showcasing North Park or the Great Allegheny Passage.

The Mount Washington Senior Center is host for a chair-sitting yoga class taught by the center’s director, Amy Kreger, with some participants joining her in person and others following along through computers at home or at other senior centers. Several people at a time at the Mount Washington center have used a computer feed to its big-screen TV to jointly take a watercolor class.

Ruthe Karlin, an 83-year-old Oakland resident, took Ms. Rosenthal’s art history class at home and appreciated being able to adjust the computer to compensate for vision and hearing difficulties. She also attends Osher classes in person and found the online course method just as engaging, whether in interacting with instructors or peers.

“It’s like sitting across the table from them,” Ms. Karlin said.

More information on the program and how to sign up for it — including how individuals might suggest new courses that they would volunteer to teach — is available at

Gary Rotstein: or 412-263-1255.


Expert Q&A