Twice a week, 94-year-old Sidney Sorkin sits in front of the computer at his home in West Bloomfield and is captivated by an engaging program he watches on Zoom. “Those are the very best days of the week for him,” says his daughter and care partner, Cyndi Sorkin. “He is interested, even animated, likes to talk to his friends who are similar in age to him, and we discovered he has a beautiful singing voice, too!”

Sidney Sorkin

The virtual program is offered by the Dorothy and Peter Brown Jewish Community Adult Day Program, a joint initiative between JVS Human Services and Jewish Senior Life, which aims to improve the lives of people living with dementia and their care partners. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the staff worried about how they would maintain a connection with this vulnerable group of seniors who could no longer be in-person at the centers run in Southfield and West Bloomfield. All the enjoyable activities, music, companionship, physical exercise, and outings came to a screeching halt, but the need for connections remained.

“We knew how vital it is for our participants to be able to socialize and experience positive familiar triggers to maintain skills and memories, but the isolation from the pandemic has been huge,” says Debi Banooni, Director of the Brown Program. She explained how studies have shown that isolation and lack of interaction could increase progression of dementia, and that with faster cognitive decline, physical ailments could also be exacerbated. This could also mean a loss of dexterity and mobility from lack of exercise.

So Banooni and her staff swung into action, seamlessly switching to bi-weekly virtual programs for participants: a musical session with popular music specialist and entertainer Michael Krieger and a variety hour with Julie Verriest, Manager of Senior Adult Services at JVS. In addition, weekly virtual programming has been offered to care partners to offer support and education.

Julie Verriest plays guitar for Brown Program participants in a virtual music session.

“It is so important for this population to maintain their connections and routine, plus have a positive structure to their day,” said Verriest, a music therapist by training who has been at the Brown Program for 16 years. “In addition, closing the program due to COVID-19 meant family care partners would not get the respite care the program provides, and it was made worse by the fact that other family members and friends could not swoop in to help, either.”

Verriest’s variety hour of virtual programs offers everything from art appreciation with a Detroit Institute of Arts’ docent, to brain games, music quizzes, poetry, or even virtual visits to participants’ childhood homes. The Brown Program staff see the joy that the virtual programs bring and at the same time, care partners get a well-needed break while their loved one is engaged, although care partners are often seen enjoying the program too. The programs can also be replayed on Facebook.

The virtual Brown Program in action.

“Families tell us that often their loved one is somewhat disconnected, not engaged with their surroundings, and then as the screen turns on and they see Michael or Julie and their friends, they start saying hello. They get pulled in and begin participating with singing and other activities,” says Banooni. “The pleasure they get from this interaction is amazing. When a participant is called by name, and they come to life. It’s beautiful.”

But as Verriest pointed out, the pressure on families caring for loved ones with dementia has never been greater. The Brown Program knew it needed to step in to help care partners, so they have added social worker-led virtual support groups three times a month, two in the afternoon and one in the evening. “Our social worker also provides telephone services, even calling families on a regular basis to see how they are doing, offers referrals, highlights other resources in the community and can suggest other programming available,” says Banooni.

An in-person day of self-care for Brown Program care partners also had to be suspended because of the pandemic. Instead, care package deliveries funded by The Michael and Dee dee Perlman Fund, became the new norm. Last year, these sunshine packages included a warm blanket, tea, mugs, fuzzy socks, adult coloring books, bath bombs and cookies.

“We wanted to acknowledge what our care partners were going through due to the Stay at Home Order, and that they needed to be taken care of and supported too,” says Banooni. This spring, packages are being planned to help increase successful interaction between care partners and their loved ones, so they will include games and projects. “It’s all about reducing that sense of isolation that people are feeling,” says Banooni.

In association with JVS Senior Services, Banooni’s team also wanted to help other seniors in the community that might not be affected by dementia but were impacted by loneliness, nevertheless. Beginning last summer, a new program called “Connections” offered a chance for older adults to meet via Zoom with other adults, talk about issues that concern them, in a safe virtual space which is moderated by a social worker.

In addition, Banooni and her team have also expanded senior programing to keep metro Detroit older adults entertained. “Book Club” is held every two weeks, with participants reading 100 pages then having an opportunity for staff-led discussion. “Film and Forum” is a film club, also held every two weeks, where participants choose a film from a decade and either watch it independently or together on Zoom, and then enjoy a stimulating chat. Weekly exercise groups are popular too, especially since the cold weather has made walking outside challenging.

The plan is for the Brown Program to gradually resume in-person programming in April, while still offering virtual programs for those who may not be able to return yet due to strict safety protocol health concerns.

As for Sidney Sorkin, at the time of writing he had just received his first COVID-19 vaccine, and his daughter is looking forward to the day when he will be able to enjoy in-person programming. “I really can’t say enough about how fabulous the Brown Program is and how much I appreciate the Zoom programs they offer. The program has been a lifeline. It just really helps to keep my dad happy.”

To see the Brown Program’s virtual programming go to its Facebook page. For more information on the Dorothy and Peter Brown Jewish Community Adult Day Program click here. Donations to the Brown Program can be made through the JVS Human Services donation page here.