Coming Together to Make Aging a Little Easier
By ELIZABETH POPE
Published: September 15, 2011
Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
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. “I was so grateful she was there, because I was in shock and could barely function,” said Ms. Zichy, a corporate career coach in her 60s.
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, 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.
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. “I couldn’t imagine being on my own in her situation,” said Ms. Ramsden, recently retired from a management position with the Episcopal Church Center.
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, said Alyson Burns, an AARP spokeswoman. “Women by nature congregate around shared interests, so we’re seeing informal networks popping up in church groups, book clubs, unions and lifelong learning programs,” she said.
A 65-year-old woman can expect to live at least 20 more years, often alone and in need of help to live independently, she said, “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. “Until then, I thought I was invulnerable, but without the support of my friends, I’m not sure I would have survived,” said Ms. Frank, 76. “I realized it’s critical to build a network to rely on as we age.”
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, said Dr. Diana Killip, 74, a retired internist who helped establish the Caring Collaborative. “It’s part of the protective armor of being a New Yorker that you don’t get close to your neighbors,” she said. “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.) “At first, members loved the time bank because it was anonymous and reciprocal — the world didn’t need to know you were asking for help,” said Ms. Frank. The second year, time bank usage dropped off, possibly because members became friendly in the small neighborhood groups and did not bother to report running small errands for a new friend, she said.
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, said Helen Dennis, a gerontologist and cofounder of the nonprofit organization. “We already have an informal caring community, but to get our hands on a funded and field-tested model — what a gift,” she said.
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. “Now the only question is whether I can afford it,” she said.
And Ms. Ramsden has given thought to moving near one of her children. “It’s hard to imagine that one little trip on the sidewalk could cause so much anguish,” she said. “But it makes you think, ’What would I do if it happened to me?’ ”