This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.
On March 19, a group of older adults from across Michigan Zoomed in to learn the Hustle, the Electric Slide, and the Same Ole Two Step in a live, hour-long class led by Detroit-based instructor Shirley Mitchell. Looking at the Zoom display of eager participants, it was easy to see that everyone was having fun—and working up a sweat.
Dr. Alexis Travis.
The class is one of a number of live, interactive sessions now available to older adults through the San Francisco-based company GetSetUp. Thanks to a grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services' (MDHHS) Aging and Adult Services Agency is currently providing GetSetUp online classes to Michiganders age 60 and above for free.
"We are always looking for innovative and new ways to support older adults," says Dr. Alexis Travis, deputy director of the Aging and Adult Services Agency. "... We just got a new report that shows more than 58,000 older adults in Michigan have taken the classes online. Many take multiple classes a day. We are seeing users from all 83 counties across the state."
COVID-19 prompted MDHHS to partner with GetSetUp. The pandemic is a bigger threat to older adults not only because they are more at risk for death from the disease, but also because social distancing measures exacerbate the social isolation and loneliness that impacted them even before COVID-19. Travis references the University of Michigan's National Poll on Healthy Aging, which has found that older adults are feeling lonelier than they were before the pandemic hit.
"Those who use technology to connect feel less lonely," she says. "Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are linked to depression, poor sleep, impaired executive function [of the brain], accelerated cognitive decline and dementia, cardiovascular disease, and impaired immunity."
Neil D'Souza and Lawrence Kosick.
GetSetUp aims to enrich older adults' lives with lifelong learning (including how to navigate technology including Zoom, social media, and smartphones), social events that combat loneliness and isolation, and wellness classes that get them moving more and eating better.
"GetSetUp is an interactive learning platform for older adults. The key word is interactive," says Lawrence Kosick, who co-founded GetSetUp in 2019 with Neil D'Souza. "We believe this demographic learns better by doing than by watching. The fundamental difference from other online classes [is that] we are doing live interaction.
GetSetUp for COVID-19 vaccines and information
GetSetUp class topics are many and varied, but they share two similar goals, according to Judy Stelling, GetSetUp's Michigan-based director of guide programming.
"One way is the learning objective of the class," she says. "For example, somebody takes a class on how to share pictures on Instagram and wants to learn new skills and build confidence in their abilities. Equally important is the socialization aspect. We're in an environment with older adults teaching other older adults, so there is a comfort level. People enjoy coming to our classes not only to learn, but to have social interactions with like-minded people."
In addition to providing opportunities for connection, GetSetUp's Michigan-based classes have included a live class on COVID-19 vaccines, hosted by Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, Chief Medical Executive. The session provides walkthroughs of local agency websites and forms, demonstrates how to book a vaccine appointment, and provides a space for older adults to ask questions and share their vaccination experiences.Dr. Joneigh Khaldun leads a class on COVID-19 vaccination.
"Older adults have faced various challenges in accessing COVID-19 vaccinations. We want to make it easier for individuals who have access to the internet to sign up online to receive a vaccine," Travis says. "Our partnership with GetSetUp is one way we are removing barriers and ensuring access to reliable and accurate information."
While technology has bridged the gap for younger generations, older adults may not be as fluent with platforms like Zoom or social media. Classes on how to use a smartphone, tablet, video conferencing, Gmail, Facebook, online grocery delivery, and telemedicine help better connect older adults to the services, businesses, and other networks that can help them meet their social, health, and household needs during the pandemic and beyond.
"Older adults are at greater risk for complications related to coronavirus, and have had to follow public health guidelines closely, including social distancing," Travis says. "We see GetSetUp as a way to help empower older adults and help them reconnect using technology."
Travis notes that the classes have opened new virtual doors for older adults who are staying at home due to their higher risks during the pandemic. As they master technologies like smartphones, videoconferencing, and email, they create a lifeline connecting them to medical care, mental health support, and fellowship with their communities.
"During holidays, one 71-year-old man in Oakland County who took [GetSetUp] classes organized a Zoom Christmas for his extended family," Travis says. "Post-pandemic, we see that continuing to be helpful to older adults facing the same challenges they had during, including transportation and limited mobility—Michigan has pretty mean winters. During those times, many don't want to come out of the home."
GetSetUp also provides unique job opportunities for older adults in Michigan. GetSetUp instructors, known as "guides," come to GetSetUp first as class participants. If they're interested in teaching a class, they can undergo thorough training to become a guide. They earn $25 for each hour-long class session they teach. Stelling joined GetSetup's staff as a guide before stepping up to her current role as director of guide programming. Before becoming a guide, Stelling participated in GetSetUp photography and cooking classes and engaged in the platform's social hours.Judy Stelling with her grandchildren.
"There are a lot of people who are retired but don't really want to be totally," Stelling says. "GetSetUp provides them with the opportunity to go to work from a remote location on a part-time basis in a job that is mentally engaging and socially redeeming."
After retiring, Mitchell, who had worked as a nurse mainly in mental health, took up writing, got active in Toastmasters, and decided to learn to dance. Once she mastered the Hustle, she decided she wanted to teach other older adults like herself who "had two left feet, no rhythm." GetSetUp gave her the opportunity to do just that.
"We've taken older adults, mostly retired, [and] reskilled and upskilled them so they can teach others so they can live a happy, healthy, more confident life," Kosick says.
A safe environment to learn from peers
Nearly 2.5 million Michiganders – a quarter of the state's population are age 60 and older. For those facing loneliness, mobility barriers, or boredom from having nothing better to do than passively star at the TV, GetSetUp classes are one way to make new friends, discover new interests, stave off dementia, and build better all-around health through mental and physical exercise.
"There's a lot of learning solutions out there online, good video-only or web-only classes, and that's fine," Kosick says. "We started this company, Neil and I, because we both had older adults in our lives who needed a better way to learn technology and feel more comfortable and less intimidated. The best way to reduce fear and anxiety is to have a peer teaching another peer."
Travis says the platform has been successful in Michigan so far.
"GetSetUp really customizes their platform to older adults, engaging older adults in teaching other older adults," she says. "It also provides our older residents with job opportunities and creates a safe environment to learn from peers. We decided that this was the platform that would meet the needs of our aging population."
A freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her finest accomplishment is her five amazing adult children. You can contact Estelle at [email protected] or www.constellations.biz.
Photos courtesy of GetSetUp, except Alexis Travis photo courtesy of the state of Michigan.