Telehealth sessions connect individuals across counties, provide enrichment programming during the pandemic
A pink-and-orange sunset seascape and the sound of waves crashing onshore help wind down MOKA’s health and wellness telehealth sessions.
“Relax and allow yourself to have this time,” says a soothing voice leading the guided meditation. “Breathe in deeply. Exhale fully. Allow the sound of the waves to calm your mind.”
“Your thoughts will quiet down as you concentrate on the sounds of the waves,” he continues.
Health and wellness are one of many enrichment and life skills programs offered via telehealth as part of MOKA’s Community Supports program. Telehealth was launched in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and extended closures, and MOKA’s Community Supports program responded by offering virtual programming into 2021. Participant Mei finds comfort, calm, and connection in the daily sessions held via Zoom, especially the guided meditation.
“I really like the different sounds of nature,” Mei says. “When we do meditation, that really helps calm my anxiety and stress down.”
Active in Kent County’s Community Supports program, Mei received an iPad through a Farmers Insurance grant and quickly befriended individuals from other counties. Mei was already tech-savvy and has become a huge fan of telehealth.
Mei logs on almost every day and has enjoyed connecting with others and making new friends, even swapping numbers to talk outside of MOKA. Her favorite sessions are arts and discovery and health and wellness. “It’s really fun to meet new friends from different parts of MOKA,” she says.
2020 was a year unlike any other. The isolation and boredom brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic hit individuals in MOKA’s Community Supports program hard. They were used to gathering in groups and getting out and about in the community.
After the abrupt shut down in March 2020, community supports staff members rallied together to provide services via telehealth. They created virtual enrichment programs to keep individuals engaged and connected with the program and each other. They started out with sessions a couple of days a week via Zoom. By mid-May, the offerings expanded to multiple sessions five days a week.
Laura Spencer, Assistant Program Supervisor in Ottawa County, and Molly Gowing, Assistant Specialized Program Supervisor in Kent County, lead the telehealth sessions. They ask participants for topic ideas and offer a time for discussion and reflection during the virtual meetups.
Individuals receive a monthly schedule via email and can sign up for programs based on their interests. Initially, there was a learning curve for everyone, starting with how to use Zoom, coming up with topic ideas, and contacting former Community Supports participants to get them engaged.
“It felt like it was a learning process for everybody involved, staff and individuals and guardians, but I think that we have put together a pretty solid program and the individuals seem to really enjoy it,” Laura says. “It feels nice to be part of something positive because you know it’s not ideal, it’s not perfect. We would love to be back to normal, face to face, but it’s just nice that we can do something like this.”
Some individuals log onto Zoom with their own computers, tablets, and phones, but a Farmers Insurance grant in June allowed MOKA to purchase several tablets for telehealth services. The iPads were given to individuals in Community Supports and Jobs programs that had a high interest in continuing services or a barrier to technology.
The telehealth sessions give participants some structure to their day, as well as a way to connect with others and MOKA, Molly says. Participants like being able to see and communicate with others on iPads, and also use the devices to check email, take pictures, and read things online.
Several iPad recipients were interviewed to gauge the program’s success and the individuals’ satisfaction with using the iPads after six months of offering the program. They reported positive outcomes and feedback including: “Helps me to read,” “Always wanted to learn and could not do that for years,” “I can hook it up in the kitchen, my room and porch – I can bring it everywhere,” “I have more friends,” “Depression is decreasing,” and “Life is better.”
“We did an interview with a couple of individuals who received the iPads, and one said they enjoyed learning new things through the iPad and they could see their friends,” Molly says. “That was the general consensus. They could see their friends even when we couldn’t meet in person. That was the main reason we wanted them to stay engaged in telehealth.”
They’ve also gotten more tech-savvy as the months have gone on. “When we first started, many of them didn’t know how to unmute themselves,” Molly notes. “They have definitely improved, which is a good thing for them to have practice with as well.”
Telehealth sessions relate to life and job skills and include leadership, money management, community tours, arts and discovery, cooking classes, communication and language, health and wellness, and more. The jobs sessions focus on interview skills, communication, conflict resolution, and other job skill topics.
The topics continue to evolve and expand, bringing them together to cook, exercise, or explore exotic lands. “I did a cooking demo in my kitchen and sent out a recipe,” Molly says about some early programming. “We did crafts, some type of life skills or money management, and then we started getting more topics on virtual tours.”
“I like to get the opinions of the individuals because this is for them,” Laura adds. “I want them to be able to enjoy what we’re doing and do stuff that will keep them engaged.”
Both Mei and another participant and iPad recipient, Justin, enjoy the arts and discovery virtual tours. They visit historical attractions, museums, aquariums, zoos, and countries across the globe, learning about exotic food, customs, and animals.
An avid outdoorsman and active volunteer at Zeeland’s Critter Barn, Justin also struggled with depression due to the stay-at-home orders. When MOKA reopened, Justin didn’t feel comfortable returning to in-person activities. Laura connected Justin with telehealth services, even providing Justin with a free iPad thanks to the Farmers Insurance grant.
Due to Justin’s health issues, COVID-19 restrictions have been especially hard because he mostly stays at home. He used to deliver Meals on Wheels and go on outings as part of Community Supports.
“He’s a really active guy,” Laura says. “He’s used to being active, so I know this has been really hard on him for sure.”
Justin says telehealth has gotten him off his phone. He’s also met new friends and enjoys learning about the food, culture, and animals in other countries. He participates a couple of times a week in leadership topics and arts and discovery programs.
“I miss MOKA and the staff all the time,” he says. “I really miss everybody there, and when I see them, I definitely remember MOKA.”
Gathering together, even in a virtual format, has decreased isolation and loneliness for the individuals. Many reported they were struggling due to the stay-at-home orders and other health and safety concerns. Some were living alone with limited resources and ways to contact others, including no technology or restricted phone plans.
“I find when we’ve done it through Zoom, they are all at home, and so they are in their comfortable environment but still being able to learn has been helpful for them,” Molly says.
The community supports virtual meetups that continued after MOKA reopened to in-person services last summer. In the fall, they streamlined the schedule and opened the sessions to all individuals in Muskegon, Ottawa, and Kent counties.
“It’s definitely not the same as in person, but it’s nice that we have these opportunities to keep people connected in another way and like he (Justin) was talking about earlier meeting new people,” Laura says. “And one thing that I have noticed with this that I think is pretty cool is it’s bringing everybody together from all counties.”
While everyone agrees they would prefer to meet in person, telehealth has been a successful alternative and allowed individuals who might never have met to make new friendships. Laura says it’s been nice working with individuals from other counties and seeing new relationships blossom. In particular, Mei has quickly befriended individuals in other counties, and they even call each other “sister” and talk outside of telehealth.
“It’s funny they’ve only known each other for a matter of months, but it doesn’t feel that way,” Laura says. “They took to each other very fast. And now it seems like they’ve been friends forever when it’s only been a couple of months. It’s pretty cool to see.”
Story by Marla Miller. Photo by Lara Parent.