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Tampa Bay senior citizens turn to Zoom video chat for coronavirus company

More than 300 senior citizens learned how to use Zoom to continue taking educational courses at Eckerd College. Now they use it for a virtual happy hour.
The Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College had to cancel in-person lectures and classes due to the coronavirus. Now the classes and social hours are held online. [Courtesy of Dr. Ilene Robeck]

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ST. PETERSBURG — For a minute, last Thursday afternoon felt a lot like the Before Times: a bunch of friends toasting with glasses of wine, swapping stories from the week and singing a birthday serenade.

The difference between this social hour and others? The participants were all at home, peering at each other on the screens of tablets or waving at their computer webcams.

Coronavirus has taken away a lot, but it hasn’t stopped one group of senior citizens from getting together. There are over 300 members of the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College (ASPEC). When life was normal, the retired and semi-retired seniors would get together for classes at Lewis House on the Eckerd College campus. From Monday through Friday, they could take courses and attend discussion groups on topics like economics, law and foreign affairs.

When coronavirus caused the group to suspend in-person lectures, a team of technology-savvy members banded together to teach the rest how to use Zoom. Most had never used the video conferencing software before. But in just a few days, nearly 40 classes went virtual.

Then, they took it even further: Why not use this new technology to recreate the weekly social hour?

“Life as we knew it is going to change," said Dr. Ilene Robeck, chair of the team organizing social events. "We’ve got to think of ways that we can continue to enrich our lives and do what really people are known to do. And that is to innovate, to make things better, no matter what circumstances. “

The first Zoom social took place last Thursday. Over 80 members turned on their webcams and called in from home.

To accommodate the large group, folks raised their hands or typed in a chat box. Robeck, 69, called on individuals so they could take turns speaking.

“We toasted one another, we shared some of the snacks we were eating either visually or verbally describing it, and then we went into how we could catch up with one another,” she said.

They swapped tips for getting groceries safely. They took turns recommending the books and movies that kept them sane. They sang to a woman who just celebrated a birthday. A few members gave pointers on how to use Zoom to organize virtual family reunions.

Related: 5 fun Zoom backgrounds for the end of the world

Tony Terra, 80, can already see the shy members of the group come out of their shell. He thought the digital meetup was even more fun than the old in-person socials.

“In person you may speak to three to four people," said Terra, a member of the social team. "With the Zoom, you see everybody’s face. You hear most of their voices. You come to feel part of a larger group.”

The social hour was especially helpful for those who had been feeling isolated.

“I found the feedback that we got from people who do live alone was really positive,” said Karin Fidrych, 65. “I think having that interaction and knowing we’re not alone in this was very beneficial to all of us.”

The social hours will continue in a virtual format each week. The social team is already planning games, songs and jokes to share with others. They want it to be collaborative and feature submissions from other members.

On Thursday, they ended the social with a singalong — something the organizers plan to bring back for future gatherings.

Everyone unmuted their microphones while Robeck cued up a karaoke version of a song by the Beatles. The words flashed across the screen:

"What do I do when my love is away? Does it worry you to be alone?

How do I feel by the end of the day? Are you sad because you’re on your own?

No, I get by with a little help from my friends."

For more information on ASPEC, visit eckerd.edu/aspec/.

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