There’s no such thing as a typical day for Samantha Casmey, Manager of Adult Health and Fitness programs at the YMCA of Greater Toronto. That was especially true on March 14, 2020 when COVID-19 shut down in-person classes and the organization had to pivot to a virtual offering.

Casmey has been working for the YMCA of Greater Toronto since 1994 in a variety of roles. Pre-pandemic, she would train the trainers, oversee quality of the programs and establish new ventures with partner organizations. In that respect, not much has changed about her job. But over the past year, the way these programs are being offered has dramatically shifted.

Going virtual — No time to wait

The programming at the YMCA has always been about helping people connect. For seniors who had an existing relationship with the YMCA, they would come in on a regular basis to socialize with friends while improving their mental and physical health.

The Bright Spot was created as a central, digital hub for older adults to deliver the fitness and meetups to which they had become accustomed. And the journey from program conception to a live website and programming happened in less than a month.

“Virtual had to become a reality,” says Casmey. “There are so many benefits though. Especially for older adults who have mobility issues, transportation problems or a tough time physically getting to the building.”

Launching new programs

The Bright Spot launched with 15 programs that ranged from fitness classes and workshops to book clubs and travel talks. A handful were extensions of ones already offered at the YMCA, while others were new to the mix.

“Some classes have grown to a few dozen people and others were cut after a few weeks,” says Casmey. “It was a bit of trial and error but overall it’s gone really well. We just want to make sure we’re targeting a variety of interests.”

Navigating the right technology

The YMCA has always wanted to use technology as a way to connect older adults. Naturally, COVID-19 accelerated those plans. That’s where Zoom came in. The platform delivered a lot of flexibility that allowed for larger gatherings or alternative programming not normally available in the facility.

“Before COVID, people didn’t have a lot of experience with these tools,” says Casmey. “All of that has changed. I think it’s great that we have participants teaching one another how to use the technology now. We’ve really come a long way.”

Resilient connection

With self-isolation and stay-at-home orders, the pandemic can bring feelings of isolation. That’s why The Bright Spot has been so important. Classes act almost like support groups, where virtual strangers can share their struggles. People often comment that they learn more about people that they take classes with online than they did with casual, in-person conversations.

Moving forward, programming like this doesn’t have plans on slowing down — even after COVID-19 does. The classes delivered and lessons learned will continue to facilitate meaningful conversations that allow older adults to connect with each other, with or without the Internet.

Want to spark a conversation or improve your fitness? Check out the YMCA of Greater Toronto’s programming for a full list of ways you can connect with older adults.

Sam Casmey has an honours BSc in kinesiology from the University of Waterloo and is a YMCA Canada Trainer Educator. She’s currently the YMCA of Greater Toronto’s Manager of Health & Fitness Adult Programs. In the 20 years she’s been working at the Y, Sam’s taught thousands of fitness classes and trained hundreds of volunteers to teach classes including Arriba, MuscleFit, Bootcamp, and many more. She’s currently spending her time on Sudoku, cryptic crosswords, and books on habits and behaviour change.