Anthony "Nino" Luciano's living room is filled with artifacts from his glorious life. There are brochures and black-and-white glossies from his days as an opera singer, and framed photos of family celebrations, faraway travels and sailing trips. In the center of the room is an imposing staircase, an architectural vestige of a time when Luciano restored the Manhattan town house of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton.
But on a recent overcast morning, the Sea Cliff resident, who turns 94 this month, is focusing his attention on a 20-inch, all-in-one computer monitor, embedded with a microphone and webcam. Through an Internet connection, the monitor displays an online interactive program called Washington This Week, produced by Selfhelp Innovations, a division of Selfhelp Community Services Inc. The not-for-profit Selfhelp Innovations developed the technology and oversees it.
During the hourlong broadcast that's transmitted on the Internet, Luciano shares his thoughts with the program's other participants, all of them seniors, who are mostly homebound. They appear at the bottom of his monitor; when they speak, their faces fill the entire screen. Luciano hears their voices on his snug-fitting headphones, which also muffle any noise in the waterfront home he shared with his wife of 68 years, Pat, who died last month at age 94.
"I'm confined to the house a great deal of time and this is a good diversion for me," said Luciano, who logs on to the computer five days a week, sometimes twice a day, to participate in programs about Shakespeare, classical music and health. "After a while, you get to know the people [who participate], and it's like an association."
A retiree with a varied resume, Luciano had been a tenor with the New York City Opera, performing mostly in Italy and Germany in the late 1940s and early 1950s. With the birth of his son, Luciano left the itinerant opera world and launched New Again Construction, a landmark restoration business in Westbury.
Today, Luciano is home far more than he ever anticipated. But as a participant in a free Long Island pilot program called the Virtual Senior Center, known as VSC, the outside world is, literally, at his fingertips.
With its touch-screen technology for accessing real-time, interactive programs, VSC allows homebound seniors to tune into as many as 35 programs a week, including "Popular Music for the Violin," "Share Your Memoirs (or Memories)" and "Weight Training." Programs emanate from diverse sites -- the Jewish Museum, The New School in Manhattan, and community centers on Long Island as well as in Baltimore, Chicago and San Diego. Program facilitators host broadcasts from participating sites or, if they have a computer with a webcam and a microphone, they can opt to do so from their homes. In total, 140 people serve as facilitators, with about a dozen based on Long Island, and they are all volunteers.
The broadcasts, running 45 minutes or an hour, are open to a maximum of 15 participants who have the special computer. After each session, seniors can linger online to chat with one another, thanks to Selfhelp's proprietary interactive technology.
"It's great, especially when it's difficult for everybody to get out and especially if you're in your 90s," said Luciano's son, Nino, 59, an insurance lawyer who also lives in Sea Cliff.
Virtual Senior Center was created for isolated seniors to provide participants with stimulating subjects that connect them to each other. VSC dovetails with the findings of recent studies that credit social interactions with staving off dementia and possibly even death.
An article last year in the Harvard Business Review cited research by the University of Michigan that determined socializing to be as important as brain games and puzzles in building "cognitive strength" among the elderly. And in a 34-year study that ended last year, Brigham Young University researchers in Utah concluded that people who were lonely, felt socially isolated or lived alone had a 30 percent higher probability of death.
VSC was launched five years ago in Queens as an initiative of Selfhelp Community Services, which has a large portfolio of senior-centric services, including affordable housing, community centers and home care. Today, more than 100 seniors participate in the program throughout the city, according to David Dring, executive director of Selfhelp Innovations. An additional 100 participants reside in Baltimore, Chicago and San Diego, where the organization has partnered with other nonprofits to offer the technology.
In October, VSC expanded into Nassau County thanks to funding support, including $100,000 in seed money from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, $20,000 from the Long Island Community Foundation and $12,000 from the Manhasset Community Fund. Currently, 15 seniors are in the program, but with each installation costing $1,680, including the technology, Internet connection and training, present funding provides for only 25 seniors on Long Island. The Westbury-based Kimmel Housing Development Foundation has partnered with Selfhelp to drum up more support to sustain and expand VSC, according to Ellen Kelly, site development executive vice president at Kimmel.
At the Unitarian church, where the Lucianos have been members for more than a half-century, president Nancy Chen Baldwin said VSC aligns with members' interest in grassroots mental health projects and their concerns for an aging, isolated population.
"The Virtual Senior Center is ingrained in who we are in wanting to help those who are homebound, and as we see our members age, we understand the importance of connecting to the outside world," she said.
Marcie Livingston signed up for VSC after hearing about the program during a visit to the Magnolia Senior Community Center in Long Beach. Since joining in March, the 86-year-old Lido Beach resident has become a devotee of a program on film noir and a "Jeopardy!"-like trivia broadcast.
"I like to use my head," said Livingston, a widow who lives with an aide and uses a cane because of balance issues. In a spare bedroom in her home, her personal computer and VSC-designated unit sit next to each other on a long desk. (VSC's technology allows for Skype, Web surfing and email, but not word processing.)
Although she leaves her house for a creative-writing program and a Hebrew instruction class, Livingston, a former sixth-grade teacher at a yeshiva in Long Beach, said she is "home most of the time," which makes VSC a plus in her life. She lamented, though, that some VSC facilitators aren't sophisticated or challenging enough for her.
Aware that good facilitators are critical, Susan Berman, a community organizer for UJA-Federation of New York's Engage Jewish Service Corps at the Sid Jacobson JCC in Roslyn, said she finds facilitators in her database of people looking "to give back" and then vets them.
"We get them into a Google chat room to see how they manage," she said. "They need to be interactive and have good content." Typically, they are retirees or empty nesters with time to research their topic and put together a curriculum, she said.
While many facilitators lead weekly, biweekly or monthly courses depending on their personal schedules, Selfhelp encourages them to host at least three programs. Generally, classes are not weekly cliffhangers but they do have an overarching theme, such as the history of a particular area, current events or computers.
Retired after serving as a lawyer, social studies teacher and one-time mayoral candidate in his hometown, Joe Margolin, 70, of Valley Stream said he joined VSC as a facilitator after someone at JCC of the Greater Five Towns in Cedarhurst, where he sings in the choir, approached him about the program. Since last fall, Margolin has led an hourlong current events program on Wednesdays -- from his dining room.
Because participants are homebound, Margolin said he strives to "keep the topics a bit on the light side and relevant -- as in the Top 10 most significant people" -- and "if I can throw in a joke or two, I will." He also tries to get them to share their views, adding that, by the end of the session, "everyone feels they had a good day."
Margolin has also benefitted from VSC. The participants in his broadcast "have taught me just about as much as I have taught them," Margolin said, "and we are now a bunch of friends."
How to become a participant
Seniors who would like to participate in VSC must be mostly homebound and sociable; have space in their homes for a computer; and be motivated to use it, according to Ellen Kelly, site development executive vice president at the Kimmel Housing Foundation.
Several nonprofits serve as referral agencies for VSC, including Selfhelp Community Services Inc., which operates the program, the Glen Cove Senior Center; Sid Jacobson JCC in Roslyn; the Magnolia Senior Community Center in Long Beach; and North Hempstead’s Project Independence. A social worker from one of these agencies or a VSC representative makes a home visit to assess the senior’s suitability for the program.
To apply for the program, call Kelly at 516-997-3420, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
— CARA S. TRAGER