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For seniors, a silver lining: ‘The FaceTime is really quite unbelievable to me’

Goldie Kevelson, 8 months, and her brother Judah Kevelson, 3, have FaceTimed with their great-grandmother, Jacqueline Kimmelstiel, 92, every day during the pandemic. (Family photo)

Under normal circumstances, Jacqueline Kimmelstiel — a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor — never would have experienced the thrill of watching her great-grandson learn to ride a bike.

Overwhelmed with delight, she watched as three-year-old Judah confidently rode down the block, waving at her when he passed by from his grandparents’ home in Hudson Valley, N.Y.

Although she wasn’t there in person, “it sure felt like I was,” Kimmelstiel said from her tidy dwelling on the eighth floor of the Riverwalk retirement community in the Bronx.

For Kimmelstiel and many other seniors, one of the unexpected silver linings of covid-19 has been discovering the untapped joy of video calling, especially at a time when in-person interaction is strictly off limits. In fact, Kimmelstiel says she’s communicating with her family much more frequently than she did before the pandemic.

The novelty of video calling wore off long ago for most people across the country, but for this group of seniors, isolating in their New York retirement community, it’s a small miracle.

Eleanor Weinhouse, 90, who lives at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, which is next to Riverwalk, said like many others there she’s now video chatting with her family several times a week. For her, the video calls are brand new.

“I’m old fashioned, so the FaceTime is really quite unbelievable to me,” Weinhouse said.

Her daughter, Holly Cicero, 60, said she is thrilled to be able to arrange video calls with her mother, who has been difficult to reach as she doesn’t own a cellphone. During the pandemic, people have been concerned about their elderly relatives and wanting to check in more often than usual.

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“I get off FaceTime, and I immediately text my siblings to tell them that Mom has not looked better in years,” Cicero said.

Staff at Riverwalk and the Hebrew Home have instituted various services to help residents cope with the coronavirus pandemic and keep occupied while being isolated. The most popular is the video visiting program.

“We’ve distributed iPads to the staff to help residents with Skype and FaceTime calls throughout the day,” said Daniel Reingold, president and CEO of RiverSpring Health, which operates Riverwalk and the Hebrew Home. “It’s really exciting for them — many of whom have never used this type of technology — to talk to their families and see them in real time.”

In recent weeks, staff at Riverwalk and the Hebrew Home have been working to protect nearly 900 residents from the deadly virus, which has crept into more than 140 nursing homes in the United States.

As cases of covid-19 surge, long-term care homes and retirement facilities have faced an agonizing dilemma: Elderly people are most likely to die if infected by the virus, and yet, they are also most likely to suffer from long-term solitude and social isolation.

“Protecting our residents is something we do every day,” Reingold said. “But we’ve never had a situation where all the people we’re taking care of need to be protected all at once, all the time.”

Every staff member and delivery person must have his or her temperature taken before entering the premises, no visitors are allowed, meals are delivered to individual rooms and all regular activities are canceled. With these and other sweeping restrictions in place, residents are spending all of their time alone.

Enter the video visiting program.

“Some of our residents are actually seeing their family members more than they have in the past,” said Wendy Steinberg, vice president of communications at the Hebrew Home.

In fact, the average number of “visits” during the pandemic is roughly double what it was before. Prior to covid-19, the home typically had between 100 and 150 in-person visitors per week. Now, more than 250 video visits are being facilitated in the same time frame, which doesn’t account for the many residents who have their own devices to make video calls.

“The irony is that someone who could only visit mom on a Sunday is now visiting seven days a week,” said Reingold. “Though we’re physically distancing, we’re trying to increase social connectedness.”

Daily FaceTime calls between Kimmelstiel and her family are life changing, she said. “It’s wonderful. I feel like I’m right there with them. It’s very therapeutic, actually.”

Most of Kimmelstiel’s extended family is isolating together in Upstate New York.

“To be so far away from my Oma right now is really hard,” said her granddaughter, Rebecca Kimmelstiel-Kevelson, 34.

She knows Kimmelstiel sits alone in her 450 square-foot unit day after day.

“Sometimes I feel like the ceiling is going to fall on top of me,” Kimmelstiel said.

When loneliness strikes, she joins her family virtually as an active participant in a day of bread baking, bird house building, thumb sucking, temper tantrums, and memories being made.

“This is magic to me,” she said.

Now that she’s gotten the hang of it, Kimmelstiel plans to continue using FaceTime, even after the pandemic is over.

“Of course, I’m completely frightened by the virus, who isn’t?” said Kimmelstiel. “But I’m very grateful. I know I’ll never be truly alone again.”

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