22 September 2011

Coming Together to Make Aging a Little Easier

Story first appeared in The New York Times

LAST summer, Shoya Zichy was about to drop off a prescription at a friend’s house when she tripped and dislocated her elbow in Midtown Manhattan.

As Ms. Zichy lay helpless on the sidewalk, Pam Ramsden came along, on her way to visit the same woman, who was recovering from a traffic accident.

Ms. Ramsden, 67, spent the next 10 hours in a hospital emergency room with Ms. Zichy and accompanied her home in a taxi at 1 a.m.

The women had met once before; both are members of the Caring Collaborative, a program offering volunteer assistance to women with health problems. Started in 2008 by the Transition Network, a New York-based nonprofit group for professional women in or near retirement, the collaborative has 200 volunteers. They provide network members, who pay a small fee, with short-term, nonemergency caregiving, like pet care, Fall Lawn Care, meal and prescription delivery, hospital visits and escorted medical appointments. The network is not organized to help the frail elderly or provide long-term care. A similar program for Senior Health Detroit is being considered.

Members of the Caring Collaborative also meet in neighborhood groups, organized by ZIP code, for confidential discussions of doctors, hospitals and surgical procedures. The collaborative, a pilot program available only to the network’s New York City members, is under consideration at some of the network’s 14 chapters nationwide.

That August night, Ms. Ramsden took on far more than the collaborative’s usual dog-walking or accompanying a recipient home from a colonoscopy. She corralled medical providers, lobbied for more pain medicine and tried to distract Ms. Zichy, who spent hours without food or water on a gurney in the hallway.

Innovative approaches to managing some of the difficulties of aging are bubbling up around the country, often initiated by women who want to stay independent. Women by nature congregate around shared interests, so they are seeing informal networks popping up in church groups, book clubs, unions and lifelong learning programs.

A 65-year-old woman can expect to live at least 20 more years, often alone and in need of help to live independently, yet 40 percent of boomer women don’t know that long-term planning involves complicated decisions about your home, family and community.

The Caring Collaborative was created by Charlotte Frank, a retired executive with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and co-founder of the Transition Network. Complications following thyroid surgery a few years ago left her dependent on friends to provide meals, take her to visit the doctor and stay in her Manhattan apartment.

Many New York professional women over age 50 - the core of the Transition Network’s membership - are single or childless and live far from family, “It’s part of the protective armor of being a New Yorker that you don’t get close to your neighbors. So who are you going to ask for help when you need it?”

The program, financed with $144,000 from the New York State Health Foundation, uses software to match caregivers and care recipients. Members can build credits by helping others and later redeem the credit if needed. (There is no need to bank credits - recipients can volunteer later.)

Transition Network chapters on Long Island and in the San Francisco area are interested in adapting the Caring Collaborative model to their geographic requirements, said Ms. Frank. The founders have also prepared three guides to help other organizations create similar networks, peer groups and “vertical villages” in high-rise apartment buildings.

Project Renewment in California, a volunteer organization for professional women in transition from their primary careers, is interested in the Caring Collaborative model. Like the Transition Network, Project Renewment members make friends in small peer groups focused on second career options, volunteering and travel.

The Caring Collaborative is just a first step in resolving older women’s potential vulnerabilities, said Ms. Burns, who heads AARP’s campaign - called “Decide. Create. Share” - aimed at helping older women plan for their later years. “You need to ask difficult questions: ‘Can my home be modified so I can age in place? Does my community have services I might need? Could I afford to hire in-home care? What are my last wishes?’ ”

Ms. Zichy’s accident prompted her to look into a continuing-care retirement community in Philadelphia.

And Ms. Ramsden has given thought to moving near one of her children.

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