Cooped up at home without social stimulation, and often without computers or smartphones, many older adults are experiencing emotional, physical, and cognitive decline during the pandemic.
Thanks to Israeli-made Uniper Care technology — and the support of local donors — elderly clients of the Jewish Family Services of Central New Jersey now can get access to live and on-demand programming created for their needs and interests, as well as instant video communication with JFSCNJ staff, family, and friends.
They simply turn on their television and choose from a menu presented onscreen, via a special remote-control device with a built-in microphone; a videocam is inside a set-top box. Programs include Yiddish music, tai chi, trivia quizzes, nutrition tips, virtual world tours, and much more, all available in several languages, including Spanish and Russian.
“There’s a signal I see on the TV that tells me what is available, and I press a button on the remote to start a program or connect a call,” explained David Lefkovics, a Holocaust survivor in his nineties who recently used Uniper to watch his great-grandson’s bris in real time.
“I use it every day for WhatsApp calls with my daughters in Israel, and to watch good shows like operas, movies, and documentaries,” he continued. “I watched one this week about the beach in Herzliya. And of course I use it for Café Europa.”
Café Europa is an international social program for Holocaust survivors supported by the Claims Conference. For many survivors, this monthly or twice-monthly get-together is sorely missed these days, JFSCNJJ geriatric social worker Alyssa Reiner said. “We were offering Café Europa through Zoom when home health aides or family members were available to help with the technology,” she explained.
But that didn’t reach everyone, and it wasn’t enough to prevent them from suffering from the effects of social isolation, including depression and anxiety.
“Pre-covid, we were bringing survivors here for a program of activities such as Jewish history lectures, yoga, Q&A with our nursing department, and a hot lunch,” Ms. Reiner said. “We had partnered with academic researchers from two universities to make our program evidence-based, and it was thriving for two years — and then it went down the drain when the pandemic hit.
“Survivors were stuck at home suffering from depression. Social isolation has a ripple effect on physical and cognitive decline, and as their age and frailty increases their vulnerability increases.” On top of that, the civil unrest over the past several months has triggered many Holocaust survivors to relive their past trauma.
Ms. Reiner reached into her mental filing cabinet for an answer and came up with Uniper.
At a conference last year, she learned that the JFS in Los Angeles was using this senior-specific assistive technology for 800 Holocaust survivors.
“The beauty of this product is that seniors can join in on Uniper or JFS-sponsored live programs, access Uniper’s virtual library on a wide variety of subjects, make video calls, and share pictures with family and friends — all through the TV,” she said. “It can be installed on any TV with an HDMI cable.”
“Alyssa brought this program to my attention and I took one look and said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is just fantastic,’” JFSCNJ’s executive director, Tom Beck, recalled.
“We got a small Claims Conference grant in May to test this program with 15 Holocaust survivors. And it worked. At the beginning there were a couple of technical difficulties in learning how to hook up the device, but Uniper has trained us to do it and the process has been quite seamless. They can switch back and forth without difficulty between Uniper and TV.”
Ms. Reiner calls Uniper a game-changer. “It’s astounding. As much as we call to check in on our clients, the phone does not replace face-to-face communication, and now we have video calling with our clients and increased our social programs. It’s so easy for them to use, and they all see each other.”
Debbie Rosenwein, coordinator for Holocaust Services at JFSCNJ, says, “Uniper has been a wonderful way for our survivors to stay connected with family and engaged in community.”
And why stop at survivors?
Mr. Beck was eager to expand the service to others served by the Elizabeth-based agency, including low-income seniors, people in a program for survivors of elder abuse, and people with dementia who come to JFSCNJ’s Memory Café.
“As an agency that does everything possible to keep isolated homebound elderly people at home safely — through multiple services from home healthcare to socialization, transportation and kosher meals on wheels — we felt this is a wonderful way for our social workers, nurses, home health aides and Friendly Visitor volunteers to reach them, and for families to be in touch with them, and to offer live activities five days a week,” he said.
To reach Mr. Beck’s goal of bringing Uniper Care to 100 people by the end of October, the agency had to find funding to cover the monthly subscription fee as well as internet access and even internet-enabled TVs for those who don’t have these things.
It proved to be an easy sell. “Every funder who hears about it is very interested because it brings our seniors back into the world,” Mr. Beck said.
The agency recently launched the Ross Family Virtual Senior Center to support the endeavor. Funding is from the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest’s Global Connections project, JFNA Critical Supports, Lavy House Senior Resource Center, Merck’s Neighbor of Choice project for Alzheimer’s clients, the Sobel Family Supporting Foundation, the Union County Division on Aging, and the Ross family.
“We give money to things we feel it’s important to help, and we support both the young and the old,” Richard Ross said. He is an advisor to the Frances Davis Fund, named for his grandmother.
“For seniors, our goal is to try to bring some happiness into their lives, especially now when so many are afraid to go out and everything is geared to remote and virtual programming. This program brings them an opportunity to have a better day, to interact with friends and access information they will enjoy.”
The family fund committed to supporting the Uniper Care program for five years “and then we’ll see what it takes to fund it going longer,” Mr. Ross said. In addition, a private-pay option will be rolled out soon for those who can afford the monthly fee of about $30.
The value of this service clearly goes way beyond the current pandemic, Ms. Reiner said. “Our long-term goal is to offer it to anybody who feels they need it, Jewish or not.”
The agency trains home health aides or community volunteers to install the system. Personal protective equipment is provided for the volunteers under the guidance of JFSCNJ’s team of seven registered nurses. The setup takes about half an hour and then a Uniper representative calls the client to orient them to using the product.
Approximately 30 Café Europa participants also get a hot meal delivered by volunteers, so that the remote version of the program retains its critical nutritional component.
Ms. Reiner said the Holocaust survivors have unique circumstances that make them especially vulnerable.
“If we didn’t have the Uniper program, the rates of depression and anxiety in our clients would be much higher,” she said. “We’d be dealing with extreme social isolation and managing suicidal ideation, which is already a problem in Holocaust survivors. It would be catastrophic. I’m really thankful that we’re able to offer this service to give our survivors as much dignity and independence as we can at the end of their lives.”
To find out about Uniper Care in Union County, email project manager Carlos Herrera at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (908) 352-8375.