COVID’s Silver Linings: Creative Initiatives for Older Adults Will Outlive Virus

Upper photos: Beth Niewahner and her Resident Life Team get ‘pumped up’ to visit Cedar Village residents. Lower photos [L-R]: A birthday greeting is delivered to a JFS Russian Jewish Cultural Center member; Rabbi Drew Kaplan delivers his televised Village Torah message.

The tribulations brought on by the worldwide pandemic have been punishing, but they have also inspired countless sparks of ingenuity. When strict controls were put in place to protect older adults from exposure, concerns arose over the potential impact to their mental health. These were soon met with imaginative solutions from across our community, many of which will continue to help our aging communities stay connected in more and better ways—after COVID—than before.

“When I started here over a year ago, everything was shutting down,” said Rabbi Drew Kaplan, Director of Pastoral Care at Cedar Village. “Our residents were so incredibly isolated,” he said, “and there was widespread depression. It was really a challenging time.”

As a staff member, Kaplan was able to schedule safe, in-room visits, which were immediately appreciated. “To be able to provide them with even that little bit of attention was incredible for their mental health,” he said. But Kaplan had bigger plans; in early 2020, thanks to a grant from The Jewish Home of Cincinnati’s Harkavy Fund, Cedar Village had purchased access to a community TV software called Touchtown. “You either upload your video files or input the YouTube link, and then schedule them to broadcast,” Kaplan explained. “On the residents’ end, it’s just like a regular TV channel.”

The “Cedar Village Channel” became a communication hub for Kaplan. He curated a variety of video content for the residents, and also produced original broadcasts for Shabbat, holidays, and general entertainment. “It was really great,” Kaplan said. “To have me—a familiar face from the building—coming to their screens, I think that added a personal touch, and it helped keep our residents intellectually stimulated.” Kaplan even created a video about the art exhibit the Mayerson JCC presents every year in its courtyard during Sukkot: Under One Roof. “We broadcast that show to the residents numerous times,” Kaplan said. “So even though we couldn’t bring folks to the exhibit, we brought the exhibit to them.”

Elizabeth Mefford, Director of Marketing & Admissions at Cedar Village, was an early and vocal proponent for the Touchtown service. “Being able to livestream our programing with Rabbi Drew, that piece was huge,” she said. But Mefford noted that the broadcasting component was one of many key initiatives Cedar Village launched to help support its residents. As the coronavirus spikes reached deeper into 2020, the staff responded with spirit and creativity. “I give major kudos to our Resident Life Team!” she exclaimed. “They’re responsible for resident engagement and they did a fantastic job with their rolling cart activities.”

Mefford was referring to a mobile party of sorts: twice a week the staff would decorate their cart—and often themselves—to celebrate a unique theme. While playing festive music, they would roll their cart of fun, food, and excitement directly to the residents’ doors. The team delighted seniors with various motifs—such as a farmers’ market, spring wreaths, chili recipes, and more. “I think my favorite theme was when they did a pet adoption,” Mefford said. “They had all these little stuffed animals for residents to adopt, and when I saw that cart, I said, ‘Oh, you guys! That is so cute!’”


“Our field trips were affected the most. We have all missed our trips to parks, movies, theaters, or to see the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. But we have learned how to stream city and museum tours, so now we can see America, Israel, Ukraine and the world without leaving our homes.”

—Luda Gikhman, JFS Russian Jewish Cultural Center Manager


Creative solutions also flourished at Jewish Family Service of Cincinnati (JFS), where the Center for Holocaust Survivors pivoted from in-person “Russian Tea” gatherings to a semi-monthly virtual group for its Russian-speaking survivors. “The virtual format allowed for us to host guest speakers from around the world,” said Center for Holocaust Survivors Director Meredith Davis. “We’ve had authors discussing their books, musicians sharing their music, and even psychologists teaching techniques for mindfulness and stress reduction. Post pandemic, we will be able to broaden the scope of offerings for our survivor clients, and reach people who aren’t able to attend in person.”

The JFS Russian Jewish Cultural Center is located at the Mayerson JCC and is a place where people get together to celebrate their shared cultural and spiritual heritage. Much like with the Center for Holocaust Survivors, the Center switched many of its activities online. As Russian Jewish Cultural Center Manager Luda Gikhman explained, some of those adjustments have had an unforeseen, positive impact. “Our field trips were affected the most,” she said, “We have all missed our trips to parks, movies, theaters, or to see the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. But we have learned how to stream city and museum tours, so now we can see America, Israel, Ukraine and the world without leaving our homes.”

Forward-looking changes developed in other ways at the JCC, where support from the COVID-19 Relief Fund—a Jewish Federation of Cincinnati initiative—enabled leadership to purchase a tent to provide a safe outdoor space for classes and events to be held during the pandemic. As Mayerson JCC CEO Marc Fisher explained, “We currently use the tent on a daily basis for group exercise classes and plan to host a variety of JCC and community programs throughout the summer and fall. We hope to make it a regular fixture at the J. We envision it as a way to provide the entire community with another versatile programming and gathering space.”

The JCC’s award-winning 60 & Better program, which actively supports a vibrant community of older adults, also innovated in response to COVID. “Our programming adapted, and all of the adjustments have been positive,” said 60 & Better Programs Manager Melissa Shrimplin. “Where we once only did our classes live, we’re now offering more of a hybrid. A lot of our seniors enjoyed the safe feeling of our online programming, but there’s a sizable number who want to come back to the JCC, and help build back the community. So we’re going to continue doing both.”

Shrimplin added that the 60 & Better Center had recently partnered with the National JCC Adult & Senior Alliance. “This alliance allows us to bring cutting-edge virtual programs into the homes of our members,” she said. “New Broadway and music programs have been added, and a History of Film and TV lecture series was introduced.”

In the end, what links all of these remarkable responses to COVID is that they will endure. From the J’s all-new bourbon tastings and outdoor Mother’s Day concerts to ice cream socials and a L’Chaim Happy Hour (coming August 5), these creative twists are here to stay. The Cedar Village Channel has permanently arrived—as has the inimitable “Rabbi Drew.” And that roving band of fun-loving staff will be making appearances in the Cedar Village corridors long after the coronavirus is only a memory.

If you know an older adult who might want to benefit from some of the silver linings created by our community organizations and partners, please reach out to AgeWell Cincinnati. The experts at AgeWell Cincinnati can connect you to 68 services through one number: 513-766-3333.