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'So Deep And So Rich': Seniors Stay Connected Via Their New Life On Zoom

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

At this point in the pandemic, many of us are suffering - and how - from Zoom fatigue - many, not all. WNYC's Gwynne Hogan checked in with a group of senior citizens who switch their weekly gathering to Zoom at the start of the pandemic, and now they say they're closer than ever.

GWYNNE HOGAN, BYLINE: Last March, I visited a senior center in Manhattan. At that point in a pandemic, we were flying blind. We were elbow-bumping instead of shaking hands but not wearing masks. I rode my bike to the DOROT Center with a lump in my throat, fearing maybe I was an unknowing vector of the virus.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing) To reach.

Guys, we're going to sing...

HOGAN: But I got there, and there was a crowd of coughing college kids on tour with their a cappella group, performing to the small crowd of seniors.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing) To reach the unreachable star.

HOGAN: I popped in to a memoir writing class.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

HOGAN: It was a group of about a dozen women. They'd been meeting weekly for a couple of years at that point. I arrived right as the director of the center, Mark Meridy, broke the news. The center was closing. It was March 11, 2020.

MARK MERIDY: We need to suspend our on-site programming here at DOROT for a period of time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Starting when?

MERIDY: Starting today.

HOGAN: The news was a blow for the group, especially for Yvonne Rossetti.

YVONNE ROSSETTI: I think depression is a killer.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.

ROSSETTI: And certainly, many of us are here because maybe we battle depression, or this place is a lifeboat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It is a lifeboat.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes.

HOGAN: Over the course of the pandemic, I wondered how these women were doing - if they got sick, if they got better, if they were experiencing that loneliness they'd spoken so fearfully of when I met them that day. I reached back out, and they invited me to their weekly class on Zoom.

Hello, everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Hi.

HOGAN: Adellar Greenhill told me about her recollection of that day.

ADELLAR GREENHILL: Before we knew about Zoom and what was going to happen, it was like one of those feelings in the pit of your stomach.

HOGAN: The women got some coaching on how to log in to Zoom, and the group started reconvening regularly online.

GREENHILL: There's an intimacy to Zoom that we never would have anticipated, I don't think.

HOGAN: Christine Graf says they were already used to sharing personal details in their writing.

CHRISTINE GRAF: And then to meet again in our own homes, it felt good.

HOGAN: Many of them did get COVID, and they all survived. But Marsha Cohen says one member of the memoir group got sick with cancer.

MARSHA COHEN: She said, I need help finishing my memoir. I'm getting this memoir published.

HOGAN: She did get it published right before her death. The group was able to celebrate her life over Zoom.

COHEN: We're making that connection every single week, which is great because a lot of us live alone. And, you know, otherwise, we don't connect.

SIPRA ROY: We are not disconnected by social distance - rather, I will say, more connected.

HOGAN: That was Sipra Roy. I particularly wanted to know what Yvonne Rossetti felt a year into this technological experiment. She says she's on board, too.

ROSSETTI: Zoom created a paradigm shift for loneliness. It was like life is normal with this and so deep and so rich with this.

HOGAN: Before I left the session, Wendy Handler, who works for the senior center, wanted to add something too.

WENDY HANDLER: This group was supposed to end many times along the way.

(LAUGHTER)

HANDLER: We're so thrilled that you're still here and that this group means as much to you today, if not more, than it did when we met in person.

HOGAN: They say they're hoping to convene in the real world someday soon, hopefully in Central Park on a sunny day. For NPR News, I'm Gwynne Hogan in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gwynne Hogan