For 70 years, our doors on 92nd & Lex have opened every morning to welcome some of the most zealous and dedicated members of our community. When the pandemic closed those doors in March, our first concern was this program's members. As our most vulnerable community and one that includes many who live alone, they were at risk of losing more than most — the connection essential to their thriving.
Julia Zeuner is Director of the Himan Brown 60+ Program and a licensed geriatric social worker. She knows better than anyone about the risks seniors face when isolated. She sprang into action, and within days, new iterations of some of Himan Brown's most popular lectures and discussion groups were up and running. “It was critical that we not miss a beat,” says Zeuner. “Social isolation with older adults can be as dangerous as many health conditions.” She admits that getting started had obstacles. “Many of our members weren’t used to using email or didn’t have email addresses at all, making even initial communications a challenge.” Tech support came from high schoolers at the Dalton School, with whom 92Y has a relationship, from families, and from 92Y staff, all of whom eased the transition for seniors to Zoom and FaceTime and the technology that would get — and keep — them connected.
Connected they are. Nearly 300 of Himan Brown’s existing members are now accessing our offerings from their living rooms. And inspired by the program’s success and the ability to bring its programming to anyone, anywhere, the center just this month expanded its virtual blueprint, launching an exclusive online membership, Himan Brown 60+ Online. “In this short time, we’ve not only been able to successfully bring our programming into our members’ homes, but have begun outreach efforts beyond our traditional community. We have already gained new members across NYC, in the tristate area, and as far away as San Diego, who are thrilled to have access to programming of this quality and scope,” says Zeuner. “It's terrifically exciting. And we've only just begun."
Some of our longtime Himan Brown 60+ members are participating in our online classes every day. 80-year-old Helene Aaron, who suffers from MS, has been a Himan Brown member for nearly 18 years. Her daughter, Abby Pitkowski, says her mother spent two days a week in our building for years, loving the lectures on topics including music and theater, even beginning a drawing class just before COVID-19 hit. What could have left her missing all of those things has turned out to have prompted new discoveries. “My mom is now engaged with Himan Brown activities from home literally every day, and sometimes three or four times a day! She just took a class on The History of Taiwan. And one on The History of Baseball. Another on Jewish Superstition. She does chair yoga. She is availing herself of everything! She sees people, she tries new things, and on weekends, she connects with other members. It’s extraordinary.”
Sue Lepper, 77, has been a Himan Brown member for 12 years, all thanks to a very attuned doctor. In 2008, retired, no longer busy with her grandchildren and growing bored, Lepper went to her physician complaining of back pain. “There’s nothing wrong with your back,” he said. "He suggested I call 92Y — 'they have wonderful programs for seniors there.'" She called, visited, and fell in love with what she found. “I’m going to reinvent myself here,” she told herself. And that's what she did, finding a welcome and new beginning among strangers she says was unlike anything she's ever experienced. More than an enthusiastic member, Lepper has been on the Himan Brown Advisory Council for 10 years and volunteers at 92Y at every opportunity. The transition to an online scenario could have been an especially jarring one for her, but she is marveling at the bounty now at her fingertips. “I take exercise classes from 10-11 am on Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays. I take The Art of Listening to Music. And Rob Silverman’s Jazz class. and Doug Brin’s fantastic class on the American Presidents. Leo Schaff’s Shakespeare class is fabulous. A real hoot. And my favorite of all time is Seth Gobin’s Art History class. His knowledge and enthusiasm are absolutely amazing — and no one is sitting in front of me, so I have a better view now!” Lepper says she misses in-person activities and looks forward to their return, but acknowledges that she would easily have grown depressed if not for such a rich alternative available to her during this time. “92Y has been everything wonderful for me.”
None of the Himan Brown 60+ Program offerings would be possible without our donors. Zeuner is grateful for a grant from The Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation that allowed for the hiring of a registered nurse prior to the pandemic, and whose work now involves regularly checking on every single Himan Brown member by phone to assess their well-being and needs. And recognizing the center's dedicated and meaningful work during this crisis, the Foundation recently approved the use of funds to cover remote fitness classes including tai chi, meditation, chair yoga, cardio, strength training and stability classes. Zeuner says the center’s other programming is also donor-enabled. "The generous support of donors makes what we do possible. In an ideal world, I’d love to be able to offer even more art classes, more music classes, more writing classes so we can continue growing and enriching the program.”
Back to longtime Himan Brown member Helene, now living in a senior residence in Riverdale. Her daughter Abby says visits to her mom are off limits with the virus, so sometimes she picks her up to take a drive, just for a change of scenery. “One day a few weeks ago, I said, ‘Mom, how about we drive around Manhattan?’ ‘I’d like that.’ ‘Would you like to drive by 92Y?’ ‘I’d love that!’ On Lexington Avenue, I slowed down. ‘You have to stop,’ my mom said. We parked in front. She sat gazing at the posters for a good long time, then said she wondered how all of the security people are doing. ‘I can’t wait to go back,’ she said. But for now she couldn’t be more engaged. 92Y is amazing. This chapter has been a challenge but also a blessing. The value of these programs in my mother’s life cannot be measured.”
Zeuner is even more direct. “I get emails every day from our members or their loved ones telling me that we have been a lifeline. I never would have imagined it, but people are doing more than maintaining connection, they are building it, through the things they love and a desire to engage with others. And the reach through our new online-only membership initiative is limitless.” Zeuner acknowledges that everyone misses human interaction. “I can’t wait for the day when I walk back through our doors, say ‘Good morning’ and chat with our members who are able to join us in person, then go into my office, sign onto Zoom, and say ‘Good morning’ to our online community. What we’re doing is redefining what ‘community’ means. And when we engage and stimulate and support our seniors, we truly are saving lives.”