How Selfhelp is Utilizing Social Technology to Improve the Lives of Seniors

The senior housing sector was one of the most visibly impacted sectors during the pandemic year of 2020. Social isolation took its toll on our beloved seniors, and my guest today leads a company that delivers a much-needed resource to combat social isolation challenges. On this week’s episode of The Playbook, host Mark Collier, business consultant for the UGA Small Business Development Center, is joined by Russ Lusak, COO of Selfhelp Community Services, Inc. Lusak also oversees the virtual senior center or VSC, an innovative tool that enables socially isolated seniors to assemble in an online community and expand their social network.

Transcription: 

Mark Collier:
Welcome into The Playbook, Russ.

Russ Lusak:
Thank you very much, Mark. Thanks for having us.

Mark Collier:
Yeah, the pandemic year of last year was very difficult for a number of reasons for a number of seniors, and the old adage is true. Necessity is oftentimes the mother of all invention. You guys have come up with a great tool, so I guess let’s begin with, what is the virtual senior center, and how did it come about?

Russ Lusak:
Sure. Selfhelp operates many community-based programs. One of them is a senior center. We’re contracted by the City of New York where people are independent and they come to the senior center every day and they get a meal. They engage in activities and whether it be tai chi or yoga, getting meals, and we have social workers as part of what we do in our senior centers. The social workers make a connection to those seniors every day.

Russ Lusak:
Quite frankly, some of them started to drop out. Over the course of 10 years, 10 years ago rather, we had a Betty who would come to the senior center and all of a sudden Betty had a fall, no longer able to get to the senior center, but still wanted to be a part of what was happening at the senior center.

Russ Lusak:
We said, “Why don’t we bring the senior center to them in their living rooms?” We did this in a very small way for our vulnerable populations that aged out of our senior center. We created this virtual environment called the VSC, and we got them connected to virtual programming. Over the years, we’ve developed it to where it is today. Quite frankly, as you said before, Mark, the pandemic was sort of made this a whole different discussion because social isolation and loneliness really hit the senior population in a very, very large way.

Mark Collier:
It did.

Russ Lusak:
We were fortunate enough to receive some funding through a Mother Cabrini Grant that allowed us to invest in the program. What the VSC is today is a little bit different than when we actually started out with. Where before it connected people to our senior center and to local programming in New York City, it actually grew into developing virtual communities.

Russ Lusak:
What we’re doing today is we’re spinning up communities that can talk to each other. What we do is, these communities build local content and that local content is shared. In this instance for us right now, throughout New York State, through other senior centers where we’re building a very robust network of homebound individuals who are receiving live content from facilitators on an online platform.

Russ Lusak:
The live content could be… A facilitator could be doing an educational sessions. We have museums, we have yoga and tai chi, computer learning classes. It’s really a phenomenal, phenomenal platform that allows people that are homebound to stay connected to each other and to a facilitator.

Mark Collier:
That sounds fantastic. It seems like the possibilities are endless. I mean, you could do anything from educational programming to kind of a collaborative Bingo tournament.

Russ Lusak:
Right, you can. Imagine if you will, it’s a live platform that has a facilitator or a docent from a museum who’s providing this online instruction with 20 to 50 seniors that are part of this, part of the conversation. It’s really incredible.

Mark Collier:
All right.

Russ Lusak:
The impact is unbelievable for the those that are socially isolated. They’re just, they’re alive again is how they describe it to us.

Mark Collier:
Fantastic, man. Selfhelp is a nonprofit and has been providing this service, as you said earlier, for more than a decade. Kind of walk me through, what’s changed over that course of the decade in terms of the services, the clientele, or anything else you care to touch on?

Russ Lusak:
Well, as an organization, we’ve certainly grown and changed. Selfhelp, more broadly, it provides services to at risk individuals who are homebound through a wide array of programs. We do home care, we do social services for community-based services. Quite frankly, the pandemic has really changed our look at how we actually serve those clients. We’ve really developed this virtual platform to be something that’s remarkable for people that are socially isolated and alone. The virtual visits is just… Was an outpouring from the pandemic, and certainly something we’ve learned that can do and do quite effectively.

Mark Collier:
All right. Every business has a core mission, core set of values, a core set of key indicators that they operate off of. Kind of synthesize for me, what is the core mission of VSC?

Russ Lusak:
The core mission of VSC is to promote independence in a dignified way for those that are homebound, that’s what we do. When we promote the independence through virtual programming, that gets people connected to each other and gets people connected to live content where they feel engaged, and promotes wellness, as well.

Mark Collier:
Okay, well very good. In terms of the scope of the market out here, how big is the Selfhelp community that a VSC currently operates in?

Russ Lusak:
We have about 1500 people on the platform and they’re all active, engaged. Not all of them are in a live class per day, but they are using the platform quite frequently during a given week, and we make it easy for them. The calendar is there. They can get engaged in classes and they’re active. The fact that we’ve grown for New York State, they’re getting connected to people that otherwise would not be able to connect with outside of their immediate area.

Mark Collier:
Okay. Well, I’m a big fan of collaboration, teaming arrangements, so share with me who else you’re working with currently and how are those collaborations going?

Russ Lusak:
Yeah, we are working with… We have a contract currently with the New York State Office for the Aging, who is the New York State funder for community-based programs, one of them being senior centers. The individual that heads it up, Greg Olson, was really, really interested in the virtual senior center to make it more available to senior centers across the State of New York.

Russ Lusak:
Currently, we have 10 senior centers where we’re spinning up, if you will, as I said before, creating virtual content. It’s quite incredible what we’re accomplishing during the pandemic.

Mark Collier:
All right. Well, fantastic. I imagine that since the pandemic began, these types of digital communities with seniors have gained popularity. In terms of that popularity, have you attracted some competitors or give me kind of how your platform differentiates itself from others?

Russ Lusak:
Sure, sure. In fact, in the past 10 years, I would say there was no competition for this. There was nobody in the marketplace, and we were the lone wolf out there in developing this content, again, for our local population. But once you start seeing competition come into the marketplace, you realize you’ve got something special.

Russ Lusak:
We’ve seen a few players enter the marketplace, but as you said, Mark, they’re not offering the same thing that we are. They are offering some content. Some are offering, not live content, it’s video content, which is not the same thing. But most importantly, they’re not spinning up communities the way we are. Our key focus is not just giving content to people, it’s building an online community that’s built by the local senior center, the local case management program, the local home care program.

Russ Lusak:
We think that’s a differentiator in the marketplace. It allows us to do more, again, more locally, and then of course connecting those local content to the overall platform. The other thing that’s a differentiator for us is that we have the benefit of having 10 years of experience under our belt.

Russ Lusak:
We developed a platform that is compliant with HIPAA. We can actually have live content and virtual chats with people that in a very, very secure environment for seniors. The security levels we’ve put in play are extremely, extremely important. I don’t know if the other competitors that are out there are as secure as we are, but certainly it’s something that we pride ourselves in doing well.

Mark Collier:
That’s certainly, I mean, security nowadays is the forefront of everyone’s mind, so if you guys put an emphasis on that, that’s a clear competitive advantage for you.

Russ Lusak:
It is a competitive advantage, yes. Thank you, mark.

Mark Collier:
All right, so there are virtual senior centers and virtual senior center platforms. Walk me through and explain the difference and clarify the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Russ Lusak:
Sure. The virtual senior center, a virtual senior center, is one where, and this is what the pandemic caused quite frankly, these senior centers to close because of the pandemic. The seniors who are most vulnerable can’t be in congregate settings, so they virtualized their content and they did it through Zoom. That’s pretty much what we’ve seen here in New York, New York City, leveraging Zoom and creating content, sometimes live. Well, it’s live content with their constituents, but it’s not in a safe way.

Russ Lusak:
They would post it on a website, for example, subject to any Zoom bombing to occur, right? There was no password protection, it was just open for anyone to join. On the one hand, they’re doing good, but on the other hand, they’re also potentially doing harm to a senior who could be impacted by somebody that’s not supposed to be there.

Mark Collier:
That’s true.

Russ Lusak:
When you’re building an online community, a virtual community, you’re building something that’s bigger than the local setting. While the virtual senior center, they virtualized their programs, it’s only for their programs. They had three, five, ten maybe classes they’re offering, and they’re putting a check in the box to say they’re doing something for their clients.

Russ Lusak:
In some instances, it’s pretty good. But when you’re building a community, you’re bringing people together on a platform that’s more than just the interaction between a facilitator and a participant. You’re building something, as I said before, you’re building a community that that’s built on several communities that are beyond just your immediate area, and that’s very powerful and very compelling.

Russ Lusak:
It allows people to be engaged with each other on the platform. It also allows people to be engaged with their facilitator. As I said before, we have a chat function that allows individuals to engage one-on-one, or with a caregiver, or with a health plan to create virtual visits that allows them to be active their in their lives.

Russ Lusak:
Our platform, again, from an online community perspective, promotes wellness and builds common interest around what the users want. A couple, and in a few I’ll maybe describe a little more about our metrics, but anyway, that’s sort of the difference between a virtual community and a virtual center, if you will.

Mark Collier:
Makes sense. Let’s talk about holistically what’s out here? You’ve got senior living centers, senior centers, and other senior service organizations. How do they participate and what’s their role there?

Russ Lusak:
Yeah, like I said before, we are spinning up ten virtual communities now across the State of New York. Their role is to find people that are, that would benefit from the platform. Today, it’s relatively easy because many of the seniors are still all inbound as a result of the pandemic, but identifying those that are socially isolated. Homebound is not necessarily a criteria, but those that are socially isolated.

Russ Lusak:
Social isolation could be, for many, it could be from distance from a senior center. They can’t get access to it. They may have difficulties with transportation. But socially isolated is really the most important piece of our clientele that we meet the needs of. Getting them access to the virtual platform, extremely important, I think. The local senior center, the local providers, build local content that allows them to bring people together around their own community. That’s sort of the expectation of going local throughout New York State.

Mark Collier:
It makes perfect sense. What’s the goal for VSC at this point and what are some of your goals as you move forward?

Russ Lusak:
Our goal is to grow this nationally. Selfhelp has done this in its past. We have had our virtual senior center in the past in various cities throughout the country, San Diego, Chicago, Washington, DC, Baltimore, Pittsburgh. We want to do that again. We think that the connections that we have in New York City with our facilitators, with museums and such rich content here in New York, is marketable to someone that lives in, for example, in San Diego.

Russ Lusak:
San Diego has its local museums and zoos and local content that would be very, very beneficial and nice to have someone living in New York. We’re starting to see that now here in New York State, by just having as big as New York City as having local content elsewhere, it’s really allowing us to build them a platform.

Russ Lusak:
We think that having… Growing an international presence would be good, and also the benefits of the program are promoting wellness, and we’ve found that with social isolation comes a level of depression.

Mark Collier:
Yes, absolutely.

Russ Lusak:
If you can combat depression, you really help people’s underlying conditions of their health. When you promote, when you decrease incidents depression, you’re actually promoting their health, healthy living. We are now looking at health plans to see, to leverage what we do. We have analytics in the background that can demonstrate some of these outcomes. We’re really excited about working with some plans. We are in discussions now and trying to find a way to have this funded through the Medicaid system or the Medicare system, and that’s sort of on the horizon for us.

Mark Collier:
Phenomenal. Institutions out here who are viewing and want to get involved, how can they get involved in servicing the homebound, elderly, and get more information on how to join your community?

Russ Lusak:
They can go to our Selfhelp Community Services website, and you can see the virtual senior center there. We’ll be happy to answer any questions that they may have on the platform and get them, as we say here at Selfhelp, get them spun up on the platform with local content. We would love that.

Mark Collier:
All right. I like it. Let’s talk about the macro picture here. How do you believe VSC will benefit the healthcare system overall? Are there ways to measure those benefits? Because I’m all about measuring because the old adage is true, “What can not be measured, cannot be improved.”

Russ Lusak:
Absolutely. You are speaking to a kindred spirit, Mark. I’m a data guy, and what we did with our current versions of the platform is to ensure we have analytics in the background that demonstrate those outcomes.

Russ Lusak:
We actually have done two things. The analytics allow us to assess the program’s success in providing its content. Are people happy using the system? Are they engaged using the system? Are the facilitators doing a good job?

Russ Lusak:
But we’ve also introduced a health assessment screen about social isolation and loneliness, and what we’ve planned, we just introduced it to the platform or to the participants of the platform, this month in pilot. But we are using some loneliness indexes as well that really shows how the platform is helping them decrease the incidence of loneliness and social isolation.

Russ Lusak:
Again, when you sync that back up to the underlying health condition, that is extremely, extremely important. Combating depression, showing that you can actually reduce instance of depression, is really important to the health care system. What happens as a result of that, Mark, is that you keep people out of institutional care. Keep them out of nursing homes, you keep them out of hospitals and overall at a macro level, you’re decreasing the cost of the healthcare system by providing very enriching content on a platform that combats loneliness and depression,

Mark Collier:
Russ Lusak, COO of Selfhelp Community Services, this has been an engaging and enlightening conversation, and one that hits home to, I think, most Americans and most people in general. I, myself, have an 85 year old mother, and I think about a lot of these things that you touched on today, and I see how your platform is going to be a tremendous benefit to seniors. I wish you guys the best of luck in your national expansion.

Russ Lusak:
Thank you very much, Mark. I really appreciate this opportunity, and give me a call. We’ll get you mom spun up on the platform too.

Mark Collier:
Very good Russ. Thank you.

Russ Lusak:
All Right. Thank you.

Mark Collier:
All right.


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