Seniors speak about their new life whereas zooming: NPR

The students who write memoirs at the DOROT Center found a new closeness at Zoom. Gwynne Hogan hide caption

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Gwynne Hogan

The students who write memoirs at the DOROT Center found a new closeness at Zoom.

Gwynne Hogan

Last March, on his last day of the program, I visited a senior citizen center in Manhattan before the lockdown brought everything to a halt in New York City. At this point in the pandemic, we were flying blind – kicking elbows instead of shaking hands, but without masks, even in cramped indoor spaces.

I rode my bike to DOROT on the Upper West Side with a lump in my throat for fear that I might be an ignorant carrier of the virus. (A traveling group of cough a cappella singers performed and my fears subsided that I would be the one making them sick.)

I met a group of women in a weekly memoir class when the director spread the news that the center was closed because of the coronavirus.

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It was a blow to the women, especially to the then 65-year-old Yvonne Rossetti.

“I think depression is a killer, and certainly a lot of us are here because we might be battling depression,” she had told the room. “This place is a lifeboat.”

“Yes, it’s a lifeboat,” the women agreed.

Over the course of a year, I wondered how these women were doing. If you got sick, did you make it? If they experienced this loneliness, they had talked about it so fearfully when I met them that day.

I held out my hand and they invited me to their weekly zoom class. While many of us suffer from “zoom fatigue”, I found that these women were empowered by the virtual platform and continued to attend their meeting every week to discuss their writing.

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Adellar Greenhill, 78, told me about her memory of that day last March.

“Before we knew about Zoom and what was going to happen, it was like one of those pitfalls in the stomach,” she said. “Zoom has an intimacy that we would never have expected.”

The women received training on how to use Zoom and, after a few initial hiccups, met remotely each week.

Christine Graf, 75, said they were already used to providing personal information in their letters. To be able to see a window into each other’s houses felt like an extra measure of closeness.

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“It just seemed like a very natural development,” said Graf. “It feels good.”

Many of them got COVID-19 and survived the virus. A member of the memoir group became ill with cancer. She managed to publish her memoir shortly before her death, a triumph for the whole group. They celebrated their life together through Zoom.

“We make that connection every week, which is great because a lot of us live alone and don’t otherwise connect,” said 74-year-old Marsha Cohen.

“We’re not separated by social distance; I’ll say more connected,” added Sipra Roy, 79.

I especially wanted to know how Yvonne Rossetti was feeling a year after this technological experiment. “Zoom created a paradigm shift for loneliness,” she said. “Life was normal with it. And so deep and so rich with it.”

Permanent loss

Wendy Handler, who works for the senior citizen center, said when the memoir group started three years ago it should only last four months, but the women refused to give it up.

“We’re so excited you’re still here,” said Handler. “And that this group means just as much to you today as it did when we met in person.”

They hope to get together in the real world one day, they soon said, hopefully in Central Park on a sunny day.

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