Heart of Georgia Altamaha Empowers Seniors with Virtual Tai Chi

The Heart of Georgia Altamaha (HOGA) Regional Commission is dedicated to fostering economic development and improving the quality of life for older adults in the central and southeastern counties of Georgia.

 

Introduction

This case study explores HealthMatters program lead Jennifer Crosby’s perspective on their groundbreaking initiative “Virtual Tai Chi for Vibrant Aging” program implemented in collaboration with Claris Healthcare. The focus on virtual Tai Chi exemplifies HOGA’s commitment to utilizing technology for the betterment of senior citizens and promoting active, healthy aging within the community.

 

Bridging the Gap for Seniors in the Virtual Age

By Jennifer Crosby
HealthMatters Program Director, Heart of Georgia Altamaha

When the world was shut down during the pandemic, we were encouraged by our state leaders to continue to provide our vital senior programs virtually. Despite never having offered virtual programming before, we knew that as professionals, we could easily pick up and learn something new. We were equipped with laptops and reliable internet access but the biggest problem was that our seniors weren’t equipped with the technology, internet, or the knowledge of how to use it.

Prior to COVID-19, I had been delivering in-person programming with my seniors every week, but suddenly we were limited to speaking one-on-one over the phone. It was not time efficient, scalable, AND we missed out on the socialization aspect of our programming. I remember, in the beginning, taking Amazon Fire tablets to a senior center to show them how to connect to a Zoom meeting. I was surprised to learn how long it took to just teach them how to turn on the tablet, let alone use Zoom. 

In addition to those seniors who made it into the community centers, there were even more vulnerable seniors in our communities that were afraid to return to “normal” life and in desperate need of wellness programs and socialization. In order to reach the full spectrum of older adults, we needed to identify new ways to implement our programs.

 

Innovative Solution for Virtual Wellness: Leveraging Claris Companion

Our Georgia state coordinator for Evidence Based Programs (EBP) found several solutions for delivering virtual programs.  Each company was invited to our weekly meetings to present their platform.  One option was Claris Healthcare’s Claris Companion tablet.  What I immediately liked about Claris, is how easy it is for seniors to use. The tablet included internet connectivity using Verizon’s cellular network, multiple ways to communicate with the seniors (messaging, video, audio, notifications, etc), and the ability to remotely personalize each tablet to cater to each senior’s needs.

In addition to connecting with our local seniors, we also partnered with the SOWEGA Council on Aging to provide our virtual Tai Chi classes to their seniors.  SOWEGA lacked a virtual instructor and we filled in the gap. Potentially, we could have seniors from anywhere throughout Georgia’s 12 regions access class information via the Georgia Health Matters website. 

In addition to the classes being offered live, the recordings are also uploaded to YouTube for participants to access at any time via a custom button on the Claris Companion tablet.  For these seniors, Tai Chi is not just an hour long class per week, it’s a lifestyle where daily practice is beneficial. Our virtual program using Claris Companion makes this possible.

 

Evidence-Based Tai Chi: Enhancing Senior Wellness through Proven Practices

In general, Evidence-based programs (EBPs) offer proven ways to promote health and prevent disease among older adults.  They have been validated by clinical researchers and provide documented health benefits, so you can be confident they work. Older adults who participate in EBPs can lower their risk of chronic diseases or falls, for example. Our AAA Wellness Program offers the following EBPs: Aging Mastery Program, Bingocize for Fall Prevention, and Tai Chi for Health and Fall Prevention. 

Designed by Dr. Paul Lam of the Tai Chi for Health Institute, we’ve been offering our Tai Chi since 2012. It is a Tier 3 Level EBP, which means that it is based on a rigorous study and has demonstrated reliable and consistent positive changes in important health-related and functional measures.

The students either join once a week for an hour for 16 weeks, or twice a week for 8 weeks. Tai Chi helps people improve muscle strength and flexibility which supports and protects joints, while reducing pain.  Exercise programs focused on flexibility also help to reduce pain and stiffness, therefore improving mobility to significantly reduce the rate of falls of older adults. Additional benefits include improving relaxation, vitality, posture, and immunity. 

Students are encouraged to continue taking the class to move beyond just learning the movements, but also explore the movements with the 6 principles in mind. These principles include:  Movement control (slow, smooth, continuous and gentle resistance), Body Structure (upright posture and weight transfer), and Internal (open joints for energy flow and mental quietness). 

 

Transformative Tales: Personal Journeys of Wellness and Connection

A testament to the success of the virtual class in general is that we have many regular, returning students. Some students who have been with us for three years (well beyond the 16 week class) so we know it must be at least enjoyable and helpful. 

Although our Tai Chi instructor was not involved in the study, and therefore can’t collect specific data for review.  We have collected many testimonials that have been shared about how it helps people.  

Even given the virtual setting (using Claris Companion tablets in their own homes) many students mention enjoying the social aspect of the classes.  It’s amazing that, even in a virtual setting, older seniors will connect with each other, and honestly was something that I wasn’t expecting.  

When I first signed up to teach Tai Chi virtually, I was expecting to be talking by myself most of the time. But, I’ve really gotten to know these people.  Before each class, I ensure that there is time to talk and connect.  I don’t keep it strictly business. This gives the students a chance to share how the class has helped them with balance, leg strength, and relieving pain in their body.  

One student shared that she was able to stand up from the toilet without using her hands.  She was so proud.  Another student shared that since she started doing Tai Chi, she has less back pain.  Yet, another student went from walking into her first class with a walker, to walking with a cane, to now leaving her cane in the car and walking with no assistance – after 3 years of Tai Chi.  In addition to physical improvements, one senior has also appreciated using her brain to learn the series of movements without watching a video or the instructor.  She uses it as a way to keep her mind stimulated. I’ve heard about “Mrs Jennifer” (me) living on their shoulders reminding them to have body awareness, slow down, and improve their posture. 

Ultimately, I could write a book on the number of people this has helped and in various ways all because we could continue to deliver the program virtually using the Claris Companion tablets. We intend on continuing this program and watching it grow, both in person and virtually.