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Rose Donlon for Spectator

Irene Zola, the executive director of the nonprofit organization Support Our Seniors, recently formed a daughter program of SOS called Morningside Village. She hopes to gather volunteers from around the area to aid the elderly.

As a disproportionately large number of elderly locals start to need senior citizen services, their neighbors are acting to confront the huge disparity in available resources. Irene Zola, the executive director of the nonprofit organization Support Our Seniors, recently formed a daughter program of SOS called Morningside Village. In response to what she and others view as an approaching crisis in elderly care, Morningside Village is building a network of local volunteers. The organization is one of many community "villages" popping up nationwide to sustain elders in their homes and provide long-term companionship. These efforts come at a time characterized by aging baby-boomers, a shortage in geriatric professionals, a shrinking economy, and the continually high cost of health care. Through extensive research and local recruitment efforts, Zola is in the process of carving out a small plot of Manhattan for her local village in the hopes that, here in this microcosm of the city, senior citizens will be able to weather the storm.
A new village in town "The major force for me was having to go through the system through the death of my mother," Zola said. Through this trying experience, she became aware of the many hardships that seniors face on a regular basis. "It falls short of humane care," she said of older people living alone with home health aids. Along with physical frailty, depression and isolation quickly surface. She had heard of villages organizing mainly in urban areas throughout the country, but she wanted this one to be a bit different. So Zola chose her boundaries carefully: Cathedral Parkway and West 114th Street as well as Morningside and Riverside drives. This small area, she said, would be the breeding ground for developing network of a support—her "Morningside Village." Instead of requiring paid memberships to her village, Zola said that hers would be all-inclusive. It would be a group of locals made up entirely of volunteers seeking to provide companionship and basic support to any elders in the area who desire it. Senior citizens who benefit from the program could donate money to the cause, but there would be no financial requirements. This village is a unique one because one of the Upper West Side's main nursing homes—Amsterdam House— sits squarely inside the borders of these chosen blocks on 112th Street. Thus, there is a significantly high concentration of elders who would benefit from a local net of support, Zola noted. John Hailu, one of the program's organizers, said there are certain functions that the nursing home lacks, and village volunteers could hone in on clear goals. "The primary focus is to help seniors age in place," he said, which he added would also limit nursing home overcrowding. So far, the group has recruited around 50 volunteers—some who aren't yet 20 years old and others who are not far away from needing these services themselves. Barbara Hohol, who has lived on 112th Street for many decades, said that she was mostly excited by the idea of such a village because it would be a positive development for residents of all ages even though its focus is on the elderly population. "We will volunteer, and we will have a ball in the process," she said.
Systematic failure Though most local advocates are in agreement that Amsterdam House is one of the best nursing homes in the city, many volunteers invested in this project have their eyes on a systematic failure that they believe persists in the larger-scale nursing home system. Rachel Lidov, a local resident who is interested in volunteering for Morningside Village, helped her 94-year-old mother move into her new home at Amsterdam House a few months ago. And while she said she has appreciated the services and facilities there, she admitted that she could not easily overlook the gap between a senior's needs and the available service. "I know that the system fails a patient on the whole," Lidov said. "The doctors are overloaded, and the care becomes very difficult under these circumstances," she added. Still, with daily visits from her son, her daughter, and two in-laws who all live within a small radius of Amsterdam House, Lidov's mother has a support system in place. But according to Amsterdam House volunteer Paul Nikolaidis, many others are not nearly so lucky. Nikolaidis, another hopeful volunteer for Morningside Village, has worked at Amsterdam House since February as an "informal caregiver." And though he described this home as a "wonderful place" with a "high standard of care," he said that it is very hard to ignore the severe lack of financial and mental support. Like Zola, Nikolaidis was motivated by the struggle his grandmother faced when she was filtered through an insufficient system. With an undergraduate business degree and an unfinished postbaccalaureate premedical program under his belt, Nikolaidis has switched career goals many times. But after spending months working in Amsterdam House he realized that he wanted to focus his career on serious reforms in the nursing home system and healthcare system as a whole. "We need to find solutions to our rapidly changing demographics," he said. "I see myself as being a part of changing landscape."
Making the invisible visible Though the locals banding together through Morningside Village are clearly motivated by deep frustrations with a system that has, for many volunteers, personally failed them, Zola said that they are not in the business of system-wide restructuring. Instead, they seek to create a group of volunteers dedicated to maintaining locals in their own homes or providing additional support to those living in facilities such as Amsterdam House or the nearby Echo House apartment complex, whose residents are primarily seniors or disabled people. But the effort does not stop there. A social stigma against elders adds to the pressure points of crisis, according to Zola. "Old people in this culture are invisible," she said. "They are shunted away in nursing homes, and they are marginal in the consumer culture." A major breakdown of this invisibility is desperately needed, Zola said. "We are the stability of the neighborhood," Hohol explained. A resident in the area for 50 years, Hohol cited a recent battle with cancer as an opportunity to deconstruct this stigma. She admitted that for a while, she was afraid to share the details of the disease to anyone. "I didn't want to be looked at as the walking dead," she said. So providing support, according to these organizers, extends beyond companionship. It includes teaching elderly people to be unafraid to walk down Broadway with walkers. This Saturday, Nikolaidis will be taking an Amsterdam House resident to Straus Park to display her artwork in a public event. These kinds of volunteer efforts, Hohol and Zola agreed, would help make the local community desensitized to the elderly. "It is a person, it is here, it is visible—talk to it," Hohol said.
A helping hand Two weeks ago, at Bank Street College, the crowd that showed up for the first meeting of Morningside Village was a diverse mix of students, middle-aged adults, and senior citizens—many of whom Zola and other organizers had stopped on the street just a few days prior. Some volunteers said that they only wanted to change lightbulbs and run errands while others expressed interest in befriending elders, facilitating outdoor activities, and, in some cases, connecting seniors to professional counseling. Amira Khulaidy, GS '10, attended because she has volunteered through Columbia to work with elementary school students and adolescents but never had an opportunity to work with this entirely different community—one she felt was seriously in need of support. "People view children as the future, and the elderly get pushed aside," Khulaidy said after the event. She expressed her frustration with a society that obsesses with the now and does not structure itself to assist the elders who need help. To Khulaidy, it seems that people easily "forget that in a few years they will also need assistance." One man came because he wanted to work with the gay elderly community, which he said too often remains silent. Another woman had an interest in bringing her practice of pet therapy to the community. Morningside Village also has growing political support. In his recent newsletter, State Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell urged the neighborhood to attend these meetings, adding, "Our oldest community members are challenged by an insufficient care system, a growing number of seniors, and a shrinking economy." One attendee at the meeting, Marge Nissen, introduced herself to the crowd by saying, "I come here with a sense of responsibility. I am a social worker." She paused, and her voice lowered when she added, "However, I am also a senior, and someday I may need these services." news@columbiaspectator.com

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