Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in an occasional series called Maine Acts of Kindness, highlighting volunteer and philanthropic efforts during the pandemic.

Dr. A. Jan Berlin of Portland participates in Zoom chats through a University of New England program that connects people 55 and over, in an effort to help them overcome feelings of isolation during the pandemic. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

For the last 10 years, Dr. A. Jan Berlin has met with a small group of friends every Friday morning to have breakfast. That is, until the coronavirus pandemic broke out.

At 85, Berlin is in a higher-risk group should he contract the virus, so the breakfasts ended. He still takes walks along Portland’s Eastern Prom and recently took his first bike ride of the spring. Other than that, however, his excursions are fairly limited.

Recently, he has found a way to stay socially connected in a world that is increasingly shrinking for many older adults. Berlin is a member of the Legacy Scholars, a group of 430 adults age 55 and older who participate in research and fellowship work with the University of New England’s Center for Excellence and Aging.

After the coronavirus shut down the research portion, Dr. Tom Meuser, the center’s founding director, quickly put together a program that provides Legacy Scholars with a social network to keep connected. Each week, they hold several online Zoom video chats to help ease any feelings of isolation or loneliness the older adults might be feeling.

Berlin, a retired ophthalmologist who has lived alone following the death of his wife, Louise, two years ago, looks forward to each meeting.

“It keeps your social contacts open,” he said. “And it gives you people to see.”

For Miriam Congdon of Scarborough, it also provides comfort. “I think by sharing our concerns, we feel better,” said Congdon, who preferred not to reveal her age. “We can verbalize how we’re feeling and people are hearing us. And that can be important at a time like this. Making some informal connections, even though only at a distance, is important.”

That was the idea behind the Zoom chats, according to Meuser, a clinical psychologist and a professor of social work at UNE. When the coronavirus outbreak began, Meuser, grad assistant Carly Woolard and Regi Robnett, the center’s associate director, sought to find a way to keep alive the fellowship of the Legacy Scholars, who average 72 years old. With UNE shifting to online classes, they felt going that way might work as well.

“We took a risk to offer an online program with the hopes that those who didn’t know Zoom could learn it,” said Meuser.

Meuser and Woolard, among others, are facilitating the Zoom chats, which provide peer support and fellowship meetings.

“What has happened with COVID is unique,” said Meuser. “It’s forced isolation. Even though it’s forced for good public health reasons, it’s still forced. And because older adults are at risk, many feel personally vulnerable at this time. … I had one gentleman tell me that he never thought of himself as old until COVID-19. He always did what he wanted to do and when he wanted to do it.

“Now, he said, other people are treating him differently. And he doesn’t like that. It’s an issue for many people. As we get older, our social networks get smaller. We’re all at greater risk for medical conditions. And then you add this layer of isolation and, for some people, that’s a recipe for disaster. And you might not know how to reach out. What we are doing is reaching out.”

Dr. Tom Meuser, founding director of the University of New England’s Center for Excellence and Aging, has organized online Zoom chats to help older adults stay connected and to avoid feelings of isolation during the pandemic. University of New England photo

In 2017, UNE was named an “age-friendly” university by the international Age Friendly University Global Network. The network is led by Dublin City University in Ireland and centers on the role higher education plays in meeting the challenges and opportunities of an aging population.

As director of the center, Meuser wanted to search for ways to make UNE more age-friendly, to find ways to get older Mainers more involved with the school. Thus he began the Legacy Scholars. “It’s a living community where the exchange of ideas within that community is just as important as research,” he said. “Where fellowship was just as important.”

The Legacy Scholars would attend university events designed to engage them in fellowship and education. The events and research ended with the virus outbreak, but Meuser knew he had to do something to maintain the fellowship.

“(Meuser) really thought on his feet with these virtual peer connection groups,” said Woolard. “It came together overnight.”

They offer three kinds of Zoom chats: a virtual coffee and conversation, a peer connection support group and a reminiscence group. In the two weeks or so that the Zoom chats have been held, Meuser estimates they average about seven individuals on each chat. Most have taken quickly to Zoom while others have had help from relatives to set things up. Those without internet access can call in to the chats on their phones.

The one-hour chats begin with introductions and then a centering exercise, a meditation to help relieve stress. They sometimes come with a theme, but often they never get to talk about the theme. Instead, the participants simply talk.

“I’ve been on a lot of Zoom chats,” said Congdon, who still gets out for walks and grocery shopping  but otherwise limits her social interactions. “The ones done by UNE are lovely and soothing. They really care. And that in itself is pretty important at this time.”

Carly Woolard is a UNE grad assistant who has been helping to facilitate the Zoom meetings for older adults. “This could be their absolute one chance all day to talk to other people.” University of New England photo

As a facilitator for some of the sessions, Woolard, a candidate for a master’s degree in clinical social work, said she lets the participants steer the conversation, instead of trying to stick to a specific theme. “This could be their absolute one chance all day to talk to other people,” she said. “And they absolutely deserve the chance to keep talking.”

In the very first session, Meuser taught the participants how to brew kombucha, a fermented tea with ginger, at home. “I wanted to give them something to do at home during COVID,” he said. “It was a fun conversation.”

Berlin was intrigued by it. He also learned that a good friend of his who was also on the chat “has been a longtime expert on kombucha. I don’t know anything about it, but it was fun to hear her chat. It was great.”

Berlin said living alone the last two years has somewhat prepared him for the current isolation. He joined the Legacy Scholars because he was fascinated by the data they might collect. And while he engages in Zoom chats with his breakfast club friends, these are different. “It’s meeting a whole different group of people,” he said. ‘You meet people and develop social contacts, even if they are just on a computer screen.”

For Congdon, the Zoom chats fill a very basic need: to be with other people.

“That’s the intention, to fill that need and to make us feel not alone,” she said. “And it works.”

Are there folks in your community going out of their way to help others during the virus outbreak? If so, please send details about their efforts to [email protected]

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