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Enrichment classes for Valley seniors expand

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The Valley’s senior citizens — most of them cooped up at home for much of 2020 as COVID-19 spread — are eligible to receive a big virtual dose of entertainment.

Jewish Family & Children’s Services in Phoenix began offering virtual enrichment classes via Zoom to anyone in the Valley over the age of 60 after the virus shut its in-person doors at The Palazzo assisted living facility during March. After taking months away to develop a completely online program, the Center for Senior Enrichment began on Zoom in November 2020

What was once a program offered four days per week in-person at the facility on 19th Avenue and Glendale in Phoenix became a completely free center offering courses five days per week to all the region’s seniors, said Jennifer Brauner, the program’s director.

“Because of the fact that we are on Zoom, it has allowed us to reach more people, because they can just log on to the Zoom class, and they don’t have to drive anywhere,” she said. “It’s really convenient and it’s easy for them.”

That wider reach is evident in class participation.

Brauner said the center had just 44 people come through classes in the program’s first week of operation. Now, nearly a year in, CSE boasts nearly 7,000 participants total.

The “eclectic” course offerings, according to Brauner, includes chair yoga, language courses, creative writing, weekly Shabbat and more unique subjects, such as lectures from the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and a Paris-based tour guide, which Phoenix-area seniors wouldn’t have access to without traveling if the center hadn’t transitioned to a digital-only format.

Partnerships with local arts organizations like the Arizona Opera and Ballet Phoenix also bring the arts into participants’ living rooms.

“The fact that we are virtual, it has allowed me now to seek out vendors, speakers, museums, in other states, because the fact that they can just plug in on Zoom, it just makes it so easy compared to if they were in Phoenix, and we were in person, we wouldn’t be able to have these additional programs available,” said Brauner. “It’s really allowed us to expand out and offer unique programs to seniors in the community.”

The free live classes are funded, in part, by the Area Agency on Aging, the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix and several other community donors. While Brauner said most participating seniors are so accustomed to using Zoom by now that it’s almost second nature, volunteers serve as technical advisers should any issues arise with technology. Anyone over the age of 60 in the Valley can join; some take classes daily or weekly while others pop in and out throughout the month depending on their schedule.

While the 25 to 30 weekly course offerings are virtual, in-person classes are offered one day per week at The Palazzo for anyone looking to get out of the house now that COVID-19 mitigation measures are less strict.

But Brauner doesn’t see the program changing from its virtual format anytime soon. She said a recent participant survey showed approximately 78% of seniors involved with the center would prefer a virtual-only format moving forward, even once the pandemic is behind us. “We are not going away anytime soon,” said Brauner. “This is going to stay, and it’s just been a really incredible experience for me as the director of the program that I’m able to offer this gift.”

To celebrate its first anniversary on Nov. 1, the Center for Senior Enrichment is throwing a virtual concert featuring Joe Bousard starting at 11 a.m. Anyone interested in attending the event can register online at www.jfcsaz.org/events.

Brauner said she wants to continue expanding the program, perhaps beyond the boundaries of Maricopa County one day, to help seniors continue to learn despite their older age.

“The biggest thing is we want to make sure that participants that are isolated, whether they’re in their own homes or in their apartments, like for example looking at The Palazzo, that we’re able to meet their needs from an emotional, physical standpoint so that their mind is stimulated and that their bodies are active,” she said. “So that’s a really big focus for me. I want to continue that for them so that they’re able to continue to grow even at their age.”.