Sitting in a folding chair, a pair of dumbbells at her feet, Mary Mahoney moved her head left, then right — following the instructor’s commands.

Mahoney, 85, has been a longtime participant in the Frederick Senior Center’s group strength training classes, though she hesitated to call herself a “pro.”

“It’s something you need to do,” she said of the weekly exercise classes, adding that it helped to build her strength and endurance.

She also enjoys the camaraderie from the group class, chatting with fellow participant Mary Beck before the class began Tuesday morning. While the social interactions can be experienced only in person, the benefits of the class will soon be available for Frederick seniors to enjoy from their homes with the debut of the Frederick Virtual Senior Center.

As its name suggests, the Frederick County Department of Aging-run program offers classes and programs virtually in live-time using iPads, laptops and video webcams, essentially “FaceTime times 100,” in the words of Kitty Devilbiss, the department’s community services manager. Devilbiss praised the program as a way to extend the benefits of department programs to the many seniors who are physically unable to attend such classes in person because of physical impairments, lack of transportation or other obstacles.

After securing state grant funding last spring — used to pay for the laptops, iPads and hot spots — the department tested an early version of the offering in partnership with Hood College. Students in Hood’s social work and nursing programs applied their classroom knowledge to the cases of 12 senior participants, visiting them weekly over a 10-week period to help them use the technology to log on and participate in the class.

The class, known as “SteppingOn,” is offered regularly at senior centers and other community spaces throughout the county. It combines classroom activities, exercises and guest speakers intended to reduce risk of falls and improve mobility in older adults, according to the department website.

As part of their studies, students assessed each senior’s fall risk based on physical mobility as well as the safety of their home environment — at the beginning of the program and again at its conclusion — comparing the two results.

Data from the pre- and post-class results was ultimately inconclusive, in part because only four of the 12 original seniors completed the entire 10 weeks, according to Jen Cooper, an assistant professor in Hood’s nursing program. She highlighted the benefits for her students regardless, naming the practice with basic medical skills such as taking vital signs as well as the bedside manner required for patient care.

“I liked being that motivator,” said Anna Waldron, one of Cooper’s students who participated in the program.

Although the assessment score didn’t necessarily reflect a marked improvement in the elderly man Waldron visited, she saw major progress in his skills over the course of the 10 weeks, she said.

Bria Jackson, a social work student, also spoke to the benefits she gained from participating, both personally and professionally. Jackson hoped she could apply her newfound experience to help caring for her grandmother, who was about the same age as the woman she assisted through the program.

The experience also renewed Jackson’s interest in caring for seniors; she initially came to Hood with an interest in the gerontology program but found the program classes conflicted with her schedule, she said. Based on her positive experience, Jackson hopes to participate in the Virtual Senior Center program again when classes at Hood resume in the fall.

Cooper and Malikah Marrus, an assistant professor of social work at Hood, both said they plan to offer the program as an option for students in their classes in the fall semester.

The Department of Aging initially planned to relaunch the program with the start of its summer activities schedule, which begins July 9. Carolyn True, department director, was unsure if that was still the case as of Monday.

Regardless of the start date, Mahoney was confident the program would be appreciated by the many seniors unable to physically attend the classes she’s long enjoyed.

“That sounds like a great service,” she said.

Follow Nancy Lavin on Twitter: @NancyKLavin.

Nancy Lavin covers social services, demographics and religion for The Frederick News-Post.

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