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Head and hearth: 2 services help senior citizens age in place

Carmela Thone, right, in front of her Huntington

Carmela Thone, right, in front of her Huntington Station home on March 15 with Anthony Famiglietti, a "neighbor" from Umbrella, a subscription service for senior citizens. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

After Carmela Thone’s husband died four years ago, the Huntington grandmother, 67, faced an endless to-do list of garden-variety chores around her house that her late husband, Bob, would have easily tackled. Thone, a retired secretary, rattled off a list of odd jobs that she can no longer do herself: “My garage and shed have to be cleaned out, the flower beds are full of leaves, the windows need cleaning … I have come to the realization that for me to stay in this home, I need help,” said Thone, who turned to Umbrella, the for-profit organization that pairs seniors with household helpers.

While Umbrella offers Thone the help she needs to care for her home, the nonprofit Selfhelp Community Services’ Virtual Senior Center provides Anna Rosner, 84, of Lawrence, a social outlet and mental stimulation through its computer-based interactive programs. In the comfort of her living room, the homebound great-grandmother of 10 accesses remote classes in American history, discusses art exhibits with a Museum of Modern Art curator and the program’s other participants, and even takes in a symphony.

Both organizations say they bring the community together for seniors — the fastest growing segment of the population on Long Island and in the nation, where 27% of adults ages 60 and older live alone, according to a recent Pew Research Center report. But aging typically brings physical limitations that can make it difficult to keep up with the demands of managing a home or making trips to the grocery store to fill up refrigerators and pantries. Compounding matters was New York’s “pause” order, an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19. Experts say the lack of social connection during the outbreak exacerbated the isolation of many seniors as they struggled to adjust to a new normal.

Responding to pandemic

During the height of the pandemic, Brooklyn-based Umbrella, a service that offers older adults prescreened helpers called “neighbors” to perform odd jobs, ranging from patching a hole in drywall to changing a light fixture for an annual membership fee and an hourly rate, pivoted to offering only grocery shopping and delivery, along with picking up prescriptions. “Throughout the pandemic, we saw a 300% week-over-week growth in these services,” said Lindsay Ullman, CEO, who cofounded the company that serves Nassau, most of Suffolk, and parts of New Jersey, Florida and Ohio. She added that Umbrella will continue to fulfill supermarket and pharmacy orders in addition to offering household help.

Mary Eisenstein, 79, of Valley Stream, used to do the painting and gardening in her 1950s ranch. But as arthritis limited the amount of work she could tackle on her to-do list, she didn’t’ know where to turn for a handyman she could trust.

“When you call for a handyman, you don’t know if they’re reliable or if they’ll come,” said the retired guidance counselor, “or they’ll walk in the door and want $100 before they start looking at the job.”

Since the grandmother of three signed up with Umbrella two years ago, the service’s helpers have performed a number of odd jobs in her home, from installing a grab bar in the shower to replacing the screen on her door and cleaning out the attic, and plans to call them for masonry work on her back stoop.

Anthony Famiglietti, 37, of Greenvale has served as an Umbrella handyman for about a year. The full-time school carpenter has done yard work, installed door locks and light fixtures and repaired masonry cracks, among other things, for Umbrella clients. He says the handy work helps pay the bills, but that it is “more rewarding than anything” when he can put “smiles on the faces” of members after completing a job. “I get a lot of thank yous [from members] and they ask, ‘When can you come again?’”

For larger jobs that require a worker with a specialized skill or license, such as an electrician or a plumber, Umbrella refers members to its network of prescreened professionals who determine the rates, explained Ullman.

While Umbrella connects older adults to household helpers, New York City-based Selfhelp Community Services’ Virtual Senior Center links homebound seniors to the “larger community by using technology,” said Sandy Myers, vice president of external relations and communications.

Through VSC’s easy-to-use touch-screen technology, seniors can access real-time interactive programs and more than 40 classes on topics ranging from history and current events to virtual card games using Skype and even museum tours in multiple languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Russian. Classes are taught by volunteers called “facilitators.”

'A true lifeline'

The sessions typically last an hour and are open to as many as 50 participants. After the broadcast, participants can chat with and see their virtual class members at the bottom of their computer screens. Launched in 2010, VSC serves more than 220 seniors in New York City, Long Island, Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh and San Diego. New York’s program is funded by donations, grants and government sources.

“Our mission is to engage individuals who are homebound,” Myers said. “Social isolation is a challenge for older adults and especially older adults living alone. Such a person may not be able to get to a senior center, so the Virtual Senior Center focuses on bridging that gap.”

“During this time of extreme social isolation, the Virtual Senior Center has become a true lifeline for homebound older adults, offering opportunities to connect with each other and learn from one another …” said Katie Foley, director of public affairs. “For seniors who are homebound — particularly during the current global health pandemic — VSC is a vital source of face-to-face social interaction.”

Jacqueline Mondros, dean and assistant vice president for social determinants of health at Stony Brook University School of Social Welfare, says seniors have been one of the demographic groups that has “suffered the most” during the pandemic.

“Many older adults [living alone] suffer from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder from the lack of [social] connection,” she said. “If they get sick and they don’t have family or caregivers, there’s no one checking on them.”

She also pointed to food insecurity among seniors as another casualty of the pandemic. “In many places like Long Island and New York City, [grocery] deliveries were not readily available. Even if you can figure out how to do that, deliveries are often scheduled for two weeks later,” she said. “If they’re not signed up for a meal program, by the time someone has gotten to them, they hadn’t eaten in a while. The pandemic has laid bare the problems and issues of older adults living alone.”

From gardening to opera

About 1 in 4 older adults are socially isolated, putting them at risk for poor physical and mental health, according to geriatrician Dr. Thomas Cudjoe, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a member of the Manhattan-based American Geriatrics Society. “People who are socially isolated die sooner than those who are connected and integrated into the community,” he said. “They are at risk for poor physical health and depression, anxiety and memory loss.”

VSC participant Neil Tonnesen, 72, of Port Washington, lives thousands of miles away from family. So, after hearing about VSC at his church, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, the retired schoolteacher decided to sign up. Each week, he takes in more than eight hours of programming, from how-to classes on growing an indoor vegetable garden to chair yoga to live music from the 1950s and back stories on the making of operas by composer Giacomo Puccini. “These programs connect me to people and ideas,” he said. “It opens my world … and the facilitators bring the topics to life.”

Joe Margolin, 75, of Valley Stream, is one of 80 VSC facilitators. The retired attorney said he decided to volunteer as a facilitator after someone at the Jewish Community Center of the Greater Five Towns in Cedarhurst, where he sings in the choir, approached him about the program. The grandfather of five typically teaches a weekly current events class from his living room, however, once he said he gave a lesson from Hershey Park, Pennsylvania, on the history of the town to “give them a different view and bring the world into their rooms.”

Though he teaches only an hour each week, the former social studies teacher takes his job seriously, spending from six to eight hours researching a topic. But when he first began serving as a facilitator six years ago, he said he thought he could “wing it.” He recalled a student, an 88-year-old retired elementary school teacher, who warned him after a lecture that he should be ‘better prepared’ for the next class. “These people are old but not dumb,” he said. “They’re articulate, knowledgeable and computer savvy. I learned my lesson.”

GET MORE INFORMATION

  • Umbrella offers seniors, 60 and older, a helping hand with routine home repairs. Members pay a $199 annual fee and a $20 hourly rate for prescreened helpers called “neighbors” to perform a household task. For information about membership, visit askumbrella.com, call 516-882-4498 or email helloaskumbrella.com. The company also offers a free smartphone app.
  • Seniors, 60 and older, who would like to participate in the Virtual Senior Center must have limited mobility or be homebound, have a webcam, Internet access and commit to using the service at least two hours weekly. Subscription fees may apply, said Sandy Myers, vice president of external relations and communications. However, VSC offers free IT remote support. Senior centers often serve as referral agencies for the VSC and social workers assess a senior’s suitability for the program. For more information, visit selfhelp.net, call 212-947-8701 or email info@selfhelp.net.
— Donna Kutt Nahas

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