The mission statement of North Hempstead Town’s Project Independence explains that the program helps aging residents remain in their own communities, amid familiar surroundings, as they grow older.
But it took a pandemic to remind town officials that for some elderly residents "aging in place" means never leaving home, and serving them demands finding a way into those households.
If there is an upside to society’s response to this pandemic, it’s that we received answers to questions too long unasked. Schools contended with students’ lack of computers and internet service. Hospital systems and governments faced the shortcomings of medical services in poor and minority communities. States learned their unemployment insurance systems could not handle mass joblessness, and the federal government discovered (again!) that it’s terrible at preventing fraud, as billions of dollars in COVID-19 aid was stolen.
The nation learned that you cannot drink disinfectant or swallow lasers to kill viruses. Spouses discovered the exact number of times they can ask their partner about dinner or TV preferences before someone starts chucking kitchen implements and screams.
And North Hempstead found a new way to serve older residents.
Project Independence is an extensive program whose services are available to the 50,000 town residents aged 60 and older. In normal times it included free rides to supermarkets and discounted ones to medical appointments; 17 exercise classes a week at community centers all over town offering options like tai chi, yoga and dance, book clubs and discussion groups; help with paperwork and entitlement enrollment; and veterans benefits, social work, physical and mental health services and more.
When the pandemic struck, Rebecca Miller, the deputy commissioner overseeing services for the aging, knew the activities had to continue. Classes, social events and other services went to Zoom, and the town’s public access channel.
And that’s when the town started hearing from delighted residents who, having never been able to attend a town exercise class or book club or knitting circle in person because they are homebound or lack transportation, were enjoying them tremendously on-screen.
"We used to limit residents to attending three of the 17 fitness classes we offer each week," Miller said, "because they were so popular. Now, everyone can enjoy as many as they want virtually or on TV, and even record them."
The pandemic also led to the restoration of the phone program Neighbors Helping Neighbors, in which volunteers are matched with participants whom they call to chat with. A version of the program ended years ago, but Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth says that now that it’s hugely popular, it will continue, as will many of the remote options for activities.
Bosworth said Project Independence enrolled more than 600 new participants during the pandemic, a big number considering the program has been around for more than a decade, by offering services meeting an unseen demand.
This pandemic brought a lot of "Who knew?" moments, both ugly and beautiful. We were reminded to help others, and shown new ways to do so.
And decades from now, when a senior in North Hempstead takes yoga at home or gets a call from a volunteer willing to gab, no one will remember the pandemic made it possible.
But the best silver linings are always the ways, large and small, that humans help each other when the storm clouds let loose.
Columnist Lane Filler's opinions are his own.