by Matt Perry
What if you had the perfect technology solution for isolated seniors… and nobody wanted it?
Welcome to TeleVisit.
Over a decade ago, Wesley Cheng’s garage was converted into a bedroom for his aging mother with Alzheimer’s disease. “She drove us crazy,” says Cheng. “And it wasn’t her fault.” The elderly woman threatened to kill herself if she was ever placed into a long-term care facility.
After her death at age 81, the bedroom became the full-time studio of an online broadcasting hub for socially isolated seniors. Each weekday for the past four years, Cheng and his wife Julie have offered classes that range from music, travel, games, education, to exercise — all delivered to users via a tiny computer tablet.
TeleVisit’s ultimate goal: address the debilitating effects of social isolation by blanketing the country with online classes sparkling with video and interactivity to produce a vibrant, engaged older adult community.
But it hasn’t been easy.
“I think we’re so far ahead of things that most people don’t recognize that this is so important,” says Cheng. “They’re still focused on (treating) the physical realm.”
TeleVisit was a big winner at last fall’s Aging 2.0 summit in San Francisco, taking home the tech incubator’s “Greatest Potential Impact” award. During his four-minute pitch, Cheng impressed the hundreds of aging advocates and potential funders with his passion for digital connectivity by referencing psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs,” riffing that older adults will gladly sacrifice physical necessities for deeper emotional connection.
During a morning call just after the New Year, the Chengs host bingo for a lively group of older adults, most of them located near TeleVisit’s Palo Alto headquarters.
Julie uses her computer to call the participants on Skype then oversees the game on her screen where she can see everyone’s cards. Playful banter ensues, including good-natured jabs about cheating, wrongful bingo calls, and poor math skills.
“Let me get my calculator out,” jokes a former Stanford University math professor, after Cheng pushes them with a more challenging version of the game.
The vibe is unabashedly good-natured, and the elderly users — from 65 to 87 — engage their brains while imbibing the world’s best medicine: laughter. And they’ve never met in person.
The number of participants this day? Only six.
And that is the story of TeleVisit.
Snake bit by bad timing, for the past four years TeleVisit has been perched on the precipice of success only to suffer surprising and often sudden setbacks.
Cheng was ready to work with Oakland’s Senior Center Without Walls to offer an online version of the organization’s telephone call-in classes, only to watch the center receive a large contract from the Veteran’s Administration, sending TeleVisit back to the drawing board. An AARP advisory group examining social isolation was impressed with his presentation, but didn’t bite; the same with the Alzheimer’s Association.
“Once again they loved it,” laments Cheng, “and didn’t take any action.”
Each morning at 10:00,TeleVisit offers a different class, including Monday’s popular music program hosted by TeleVisit board member John Lehman. The 10-minute, pre-recorded video spotlights a different genre and uses green screen technology to place Lehman in various cities around the globe to complement the day’s musical offering — Harlem, for instance, to showcase jazz and blues.
“I want to offer something the participant can’t get in any other way, which is simulated radio music programs from the 1930’s to 1980’s,” says Lehman. “The memory of the songs we listened to as teenagers is the strongest, longest lasting memory we have.”
The rest of the week’s programs feature brain games, quiz shows, and exercise. The popular Throwback Thursday stokes discussions of old objects, people, places and events.
Throughout the day – at noon, 2:00 and 4:00 — TeleVisit also offers short exercise videos to ensure users remain active. As always, they only need to tap the “Join” button on a tablet to participate as programs are automatically delivered.
There are also special programs posted online, such as the Cheng’s recent visit to Pescadero, or a Ted Talk on social isolation.
The physical, mental and emotional problems of social isolation are well-known, and include depression, anxiety, heart disease and a host of other chronic ailments.
Yet even with abundant research supporting the need for social connectivity, Cheng has fought an uphill battle.
While long-term care facilities often complain about how difficult it is to get residents out of their rooms, they have typically stiff-armed Cheng.
“I’ve had so many doors slam in my face,” he laments. “They say ‘We’ve got it covered.’”
The duo creates all of TeleVisit’s content themselves — they edit videos, compile photos, and write quiz show questions. All of this is squeezed around Cheng’s full-time job as a program manger at Cisco Systems, and the couple’s family obligations raising two teenaged boys.
“This is my night and evening job,” jokes Cheng, once the volunteer technical director for a public television station. “Most of our weekends are spent in content creation.”
Cheng hopes this year will be the turning point.
TeleVisit will be rolled out to Palo Alto-based Avenidas Village, part of the nationwide network of older adult villages, which could expand participation significantly by exposing its programs to 400 new seniors. Cheng anticipates 100 new participants.
Cheng is also allying with a popular home care agency to deliver TeleVisit to its isolated clients.
While Google has donated a handful of tablets, Cheng hopes new users will purchase them for $150. Although the programs are currently offered for free, he wants TeleVisit to eventually be self-sustaining, if not wildly profitable.
“Profit is not a motive,” insists Cheng. “The reason for self-sustainability is to enable TeleVisit to scale and reach as many people as possible.”
Cheng views the aging process not just as endless decay, but untapped potential of the mind, body and spirit.
“We look at old people as a set a problems,” he observes. “But we should be looking at them as the whole person. We should be looking at their soul when we see them.”
And despite the nearly constant challenges he’s faced, Cheng remains optimistic.
“It’s been a lonely road for four years,” he admits, “But we’re not going to stop.”