Mohini Khosla’s large house in Malton often echoes with bhajan – devotional songs sung in Hindi – from dusk to dawn. Usually Ms. Khosla, known to many as “Mohini Aunty,” is warmly welcomed at religious ceremonies, weddings, birthdays – even funerals – to perform the traditional tunes, familiar to many in the South Asian diaspora. But pandemic lockdowns brought a swift halt to such gatherings, so she indulges her long-time passion for the music by singing at home instead.
Thanks to technology, she still has an audience, however – Ms. Khosla has regularly been singing bhajan over Zoom, even late into the night when others on the call are yawning, coaxing them to listen to just one more song. The calls keep her linked to her community – and without them, she wouldn’t have much to do, she admits.
When COVID-19 hit, lockdowns helped protect the vulnerable – including seniors – from the spread of the virus, but it also cut many older people off from their day-to-day supports and routines. As nearly every aspect of society shifted to a virtual model, the pandemic forced a generation often unfamiliar with digital technology to master the latest platforms to help them maintain critical social connections.
Before the pandemic, Ms. Khosla, a retired teacher who has lived in Malton since 1978, had an active social life – and a limited understanding of technology. At 84, she found herself trying to make sense of the smartphone her son bought for her. Now, she’s on several video calls a day – FaceTiming with her son and grandchildren, attending virtual sessions hosted by the Malton Women Council, and singing bhajan for Hindu temples’ online events.
“Staying in touch with my children made me learn technology,” says Ms. Khosla, recounting how she’s been able to engage with others through the multiple online chats that now fill her days. “I know more than just FaceTime. I’ll be singing for the Arya Samaj temple today, and later in the evening, I’ll have my ‘chai time’ with the Malton Women group.”
Prior to COVID-19 lockdowns, Ms. Khosla had a busy schedule, volunteering with a local daycare and at the Malton Village long-term care home, and taking part in a seniors’ group for activities such as dancing, meditation and yoga.
When the seniors’ group lost their usual meeting spot at a local library before the pandemic, Ms. Khosla and her fellow retirees began attending various get-togethers and workshops held by the Malton Women Council (MWC).
During the pandemic, many of those sessions – including “chit-chat and chai,” health and wellness discussions and craft circles – have pivoted to virtual meetups through Facebook Live and the GoToMeeting platform.
The virtual sessions allowed seniors from across Peel Region to remain engaged and active while ensuring they stayed safe from COVID-19, says MWC executive director Uzma Irfan. “We are happy we were able to preserve their mental health … and keep them young at heart.”
However, she and her team recognized that many seniors needed help with navigating the technology required not only for MWC’s sessions, but often also to communicate with family and friends via smartphone apps or video software on their laptops or tablets.
The non-profit decided to reallocate funding previously slated for space rental and other costs for in-person events toward community-based tech support instead. Existing volunteers who had been assisting with such services were hired on part-time.
Ms. Irfan found herself lending a hand as well – she recalls that once COVID-19 restrictions had eased, she visited Ms. Khosla to show her how to use the video call function on WhatsApp, all while standing in her driveway.
But it was MWC’s lead tech support co-ordinator, Parminder Randhawa, who made sure Ms. Khosla and other seniors were able to access the group’s virtual sessions – and also participate fully.
At first, he says, many of MWC’s seniors didn’t even understand the concept of virtual meetings, let alone how to get involved.
“They never realized that this small dot on their laptop is a camera, and they can see each other through it,” he says.
Mr. Randhawa, 42, says his biggest win was when he saw some of the seniors navigate through online sessions with ease – hitting the mute button, turning videos on and off, even sending emojis.
For retirees used to filling their time by socializing in person, adjusting to technology has been difficult, he points out, adding that teaching seniors not accustomed to the latest tech requires a great deal of patience. He recalls showing Ms. Khosla how to use WhatsApp messaging more than 25 times, and says he made nearly 35 house calls to seniors during the brief respite from lockdowns last fall.
“It’s like teaching the kids again – you take one baby step at a time, and then teach it again and again,” he says.
Madan Chauhan, 81, a long-time MWC volunteer, not only mastered Zoom, but decided to use his expertise as a financial adviser to host virtual sessions for fellow seniors on how to file their taxes and learn more about managing money.
“I feel great – I am contributing to the community,” Mr. Chauhan says, adding that he’s getting as much out of the exchange as the participants are. “I am more relaxed now by doing it. MWC gave me a chance to speak to people … and share my experience with them.”
In addition to his involvement with MWC, Mr. Chauhan says he initially learned more about newer technology such as Zoom by asking younger friends. Similarly, Brampton resident Ram Singh Dhanota, a retired insurance broker now working part-time, says living in a multigenerational household has helped him navigate some of the platforms made popular during the pandemic.
Mr. Dhanota, who lives with his son, daughter-in-law and grandson, learned how to flip the camera on his phone thanks to his eight-year-old grandson. He now does regular video calls with his relatives in India and his sister in New Zealand.
He says the calls have been a lifeline during the pandemic, when visiting them isn’t an option. “Something is better than nothing,” he says. “I feel better talking to them.”
He’s also been attending insurance seminars via Zoom on his computer and is getting used to working primarily online, though he prefers to keep his camera off and listen to the audio only.
Back in Malton, Ms. Khosla is thankful for both the audio and video functions that allow her to share her love of singing – and help her keep in touch with her son in California and her peers in the MWC seniors’ group. Though she and the other seniors call Mr. Randhawa their “lifesaver” for helping them get up to speed on the digital skills they needed to stay connected, she says she’s hoping any future tech support can be done in person rather than virtually.
“I don’t understand much like that – I want the teacher sitting next to me,” Ms. Khosla says. “I’ll learn more when the pandemic is over.”
Performance: Mohini Khosla sings her bhajan ‘Have Ram Teri Maya’
Mohini Khosla regularly sings Hindu prayer songs in Hindi over video calls for online events. Before the pandemic, the retired teacher had an active social life – and a limited understanding of technology.
The Globe and Mail
Video by Timothy Moore
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