ICS Virtual Social Program Connects Members During Pandemic

“The Virtual Social Program was absolutely amazing,” said Independence Care System (ICS) member Cathy Kiler-McFadden. “I learned so many things, and connected with many people. It was so well done and so adaptive.”
ICS Virtual Social Program

Launched last October, the ICS Virtual Social Program was designed to promote participation in social, physical, educational and recreational activities among members who have been isolated in their homes due to the coronavirus pandemic. The two-hour, twice a-week program was coordinated by JoEllen Zembruski-Ruple, who was also recently hired as ICS Director of Member Programs. The program was made possible by a timely and generous donation from the Disability Opportunity Fund.

Hosted via Zoom, the program operated in two parts: an hour of social activities including games, music and special guest lectures, followed by an hour of adaptive yoga. Participants engaged with a variety of topics, including nutrition and health, music, creative projects, how to maintain life balance, holidays and traditions, and more. Educational guest lectures were provided by retired New York University Professor John Rossi, and focused on learning about different countries, among other subjects. Professor Rossi has taught subjects such as South American studies, the Alaskan frontier and economics and finance. The yoga program featured an adaptive yoga and movement specialist who led members through exercises to stretch and move their bodies gently, while also learning breathing and relaxation techniques.

Virtual Social Program engages members on all levels 

Participant feedback was uniformly positive and JoEllen notes that the program’s huge success is due to her outstanding consultant team.

“Many people said that this program reduced their stress and helped them develop skills to cope with anxiety during this time of extreme isolation,” she said.  

One of the program’s consultants, Linda Hickman, is a multi-talented artist who has led many exciting adult day programs in New York City. Linda described the Virtual Social Program participants as enthusiastic and engaged, and noted that there were plenty of activities and areas of focus they enjoyed.

Linda,  who has also presented music programs for people with disabilities in long term care facilities and received a special services award from the MS Society for her innovative programs, said the experience collaborating with ICS members was especially rewarding.

“People were really isolated. Some were depressed and dealing with mental illness because of the pandemic,” she said. “The program had a degree of intensity I haven’t experienced because of the pandemic. We tried a variety of activities. Meditation. Laughter therapy. It was personal, and it was great getting to know ICS members.”

Linda also said that, over time, members grew more comfortable and open with her and with each other, sharing personal works, poems, music and stories.

“The whole group was so talented, creative and intelligent,” she said. “The program opened my eyes to what they’re dealing with, whether it be mobility issues or health issues. It was a huge bonding experience with fantastic people.”

Connection through yoga

Another program consultant, Elizabeth Durnin, is a certified yoga teacher and yoga therapist who has been practicing yoga for most of her life and teaching it for 26 years. Elizabeth focused on chair yoga with the participants. The goal, she explained, was to allow people to be themselves and to create an atmosphere of laughter and learning, showing how yoga can enhance their lives.

“During COVID, where were they going to go?” Elizabeth said. “They looked forward to this every week. This group was fabulous. They were hungry to learn and very pleasant and there was so much interaction.”

Participants engaged in exercises that kept them active and energized, from chair yoga to breathing exercises and even Reiki, a Japanese form of healing that involves a technique of transferring energy from  the instructor to the individual to support emotional or physical healing.

“We worked on trying to move the spine in all directions—a healthy spine is a healthy body,” Elizabeth said. “We did forward bending, and hand and finger exercises. We focused on removing tension in the neck and shoulders. We did inspirational readings at the end of each class.We were all sad when the program ended, but people were motivated and inspired and are hoping to have more opportunities like this.”

ICS members benefit from Virtual Social Program

JoEllen says that the Virtual Social Program will return this year, thanks to new funding and support from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.

“The new program format will offer a virtual yoga and meditation wellness program on Mondays, a fitness program on Tuesdays and a social connection program on Wednesdays,” she said.

Many ICS members, including Anne-Elizabeth Straub, not only enjoyed the Virtual Social Program, but learned more about themselves, new subjects and new exercise techniques to support their physical and mental health, all during a challenging pandemic.

“People have a lot of barriers, and day-to-day survival issues,” Anne-Elizabeth said. “Is my personal aide going to turn up? Can I get out of bed? Those things take precedent. Instructors in this program paid attention to how people were doing. We talked about social isolation. This was crucial, and it made our group closer. I really enjoyed it.”

During the Virtual Social Program, two participants were connected with emergency wheelchair repair services because the issues they were having—one member was confined to bed and another was stuck in a worse position due to broken equipment—came to light through participating in the program.   

Cathy said she enjoyed the program overall, and by attending, learned the importance of connection.

“I have multiple sclerosis, and I use a motorized wheelchair,” Cathy said. “The breathing and relaxation exercises were great. They changed my world. We shared lots of personal stories. We met new people, and learned how they navigated their world with the same disability.

“When things were good, you shared. When they weren’t, you shared.  This program opened the door, and let the world back in. It changed your outlook for the better.”

View the new program format below!

  • Register for Gentle Seated Yoga & Mindfulness here.
  • Register for Social Connections: Together Time! here.
  • Register for Fitness Series: Move it! here.
Christopher Engelhardt

Christopher Engelhardt

Communications Specialist