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  • Emma Baumgartel

Dickinson Hall: A Virtual Success Story

Dickinson Hall, a beloved place for seniors to come together to enjoy events, classes, and entertainment, had to undergo a shift to all-virtual programming due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A beautiful Georgian-style building cherished by seniors in Lake Forest, Dickinson Hall puts on some 140 events per month, including trips to museums and restaurants, fitness classes, poker, and more. Tricia Schwall, manager of Dickinson Hall’s senior programs says, “Dickinson Hall is almost an ‘extension of home’ for seniors of Lake Forest,” a statement that rings truer than ever with the transition to at-home virtual programming.

Tricia Schwall has been manager of Dickinson Hall for less than a year yet recognizes a shift to all-virtual programming, “is probably one of the hardest things we’ve ever done.” Dickinson is popular among Lake Forest seniors and a wonderful place to form new relationships; something that becomes more difficult, even rare, with age. Schwall and her staff of four dedicated individuals were worried that members of Dickinson would lose interest in programming when they shifted online due to the cancellation of in-person programming. The transition, however, has been a resounding success for Dickinson.

With those 65-years of age and older regarded as one of the most at-risk populations during the pandemic, Dickinson Hall members were looking for ways to reconnect with their community and find entertainment while staying at home. Dickinson Hall has done a marvelous job of continuing to host events for seniors during such a challenging time. Before virtual classes even started, Schwall and her energetic team offered a Zoom boot camp for seniors to help them become accustomed to the new technology. Staff also regularly checked in with members to ensure they understood how to stay connected using technology and to help brighten up their early-quarantine days.

Virtual programming is now in full swing and senior members are enjoying chair yoga, language courses, music performances, virtual museum tours, Chicago history presentations, and more from the safety of their homes. Over Thanksgiving, the Dickinson staff put together a “Turkey Dinner Dash n’ Dine” drive-thru for senior members to enjoy a turkey dinner during the holiday, which received countless thank you messages and gratitude from community members. For Christmas, the staff hosted a virtual cello concert, performed by cellist Kathleen Long. Seniors also took part in a “Holiday Mix & Mingle” to reconnect with fellow members over Zoom.

One of the most surprising occurrences during the shift to virtual was the addition of out-of-state community members. Being virtual has allowed family and friends of Dickinson Hall members who live outside of Lake Forest and the state to take part in events, including the mother of Dickinson Hall’s yoga instructor, Ana Holland Krawec. Ana’s mother became a member and started joining her daughter’s yoga classes, which include chair yoga and other senior-friendly yoga techniques.

Of course, the switch to virtual programming experienced its share of challenges, such as helping some of the eldest seniors become involved. “We have such a large group of much older adults who don’t want anything to do with the Internet, so we have a tougher time getting them involved,” says Schwall.

The majority of Dickinson Hall members, virtual programming has impacted their lives in a positive way. “At a time of the year when it is important to focus on what we have to be thankful for, I want to pass along our appreciation for Dickinson Hall and all you do to address the needs of seniors in our community,” says JoAnn D., a member. “When it is not possible to be together in person, the Dickinson staff has really done an awesome job to stay connected.”

Cathy P, another member, thanks the Dickinson Hall team for their adaptability, “My very grateful thanks to Tricia, Katie, Tara and Janet for all your efforts in making this an amazing wonderful year at Dickinson Hall.”

When COVID-19 finally declines, Schwall says the plan is to introduce hybrid programming to offer both in-person and virtual classes.

Dickinson Hall is a truly special place for seniors, and an invaluable part of the Lake Forest community. To check out Dickson Hall’s current programming, you can find their Newsbrief here.


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