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Resources for the Elderly



For many at the Fort Lee, N.J., cooperative, “the problem” was getting out of hand. In a nutshell, some owners were upset about a group of residents, all aged over 70, who kept sitting in the lobby day after day. They would talk to each other, talk to the staff on duty, and, in the words of one owner, “make a nuisance of themselves.”

The board was at a loss. The directors knew that the lobby was not a place for congregations. They politely asked the group to leave. Many times. But the so-called “Lobby Gang” continued to sit and chat. The board discussed it at innumerable board meetings. The members grew frustrated. And the gang remained in place.

A tempest in a teapot? Perhaps. But on a practical level, the board had a point. “The lobby is a place of egress and ingress,” explains Jeffrey Levy, a manager at the Argo Corporation. “It shouldn’t be a meeting room. And it’s not just a question of letting seniors sit there: it is people – it could be teenagers, it could be anyone – congregating in that space. For one thing, it’s a potential fire hazard. And there’s another problem. Some may think it doesn’t look that good to potential buyers to see people hanging around in the lobby.”

Yet there is a bigger concern at stake, and it has to do with why the seniors were sitting in the lobby to begin with. Simply put, the issue is the elderly. It is an issue that affects everyone, since the over-60 class is one that each owner will eventually join. And in a housing association, where the residents run the show, care of and concern for seniors becomes a particularly important issue. How does a cooperative, condominium, or homeowner association treat its more senior members? As a nuisance? Like everyone else? Or does it simply ignore their needs until a crisis occurs?

“The Bible says that society is judged by the way it treats its elderly,” notes Alvin Wasserman, director of Fairfield Property Services, a Commack, N.Y.-based management firm. “I think that applies to homeowner communities, as well.”


Boredom and NORCs

If your property is made up of young urban professionals, some may think that, when compared with lobby renovation or boiler repair, dealing with the elderly isn’t a pressing issue. But it could be.

“Naturally occurring retirement communities – or NORCs – find themselves in all parts of our country and throughout the world,” observes Nat Yalowitz, a board member at Penn South, a 2,820-unit Manhattan cooperative and the CEO of the NORC Supportive Services Center (N-SSC). “Extensive research indicates that most people prefer to continue living where they have been living even after retirement. When there are large numbers of retirees who accumulate in one community, they form a NORC.”

On a basic level, boards should take an interest in every member of the community, looking on the residents as a resource rather than a burden. “I do not think that any one subculture should live by itself due to age, religious belief, or race,” says Levy. “My thinking is that the more the mix the better it is. With senior citizens, you can learn from them in their life experience.”

Indeed, many say that seniors have much to offer. They usually have more time to devote to the property because they are frequently retired, and they often bring previous a wide-range of experience to the plate.  “Even if they’re not on the board that doesn’t mean they can’t participate,” says Howard Kupferberg, principal in LCC Realty in Cedarhurst, N.Y.  “If you’re looking for new hallway lights, or redecorating ideas, it is worthwhile for the powers that be to get people involved in some fashion.”

“Many retirees have time to serve on committees,” notes Elaine Warga-Murray, president of E.W. Murray Associates in Howell, N.J. “They can bring very useful knowledge because they have the experience of being in business.”

             Managers suggest getting seniors involved in a variety of ways. They can write newsletters, serve on committees, or keep an eye out for problems in the property. Jay Cohen, executive vice president of A. Michael Tyler Realty in Manhattan, suggests using seniors as an extra set of eyes and ears. “They see all, hear all. They can help keep an eye for things. If they see strange people or someone moving into the building, they can report it.”

“You have an empty building from 9 to 5,” Levy adds. “That’s not a good thing. You have them moving around the building. They notice things. They may stop the super and tell him that there’s a seam in the carpet coming out. They could call attention to it before some trips on it, falls, and gets hurt.”

If people are congregating in the lobby, it could be from boredom. The solution could be as simple as finding an alternative area in which they can gather.  “The building should set up a card room, or an exercise room,” Kupferberg says. “The board should try and find out what interests the seniors, and then go from there.”

“We made one of our rooms a senior citizen library,” Levy notes. “That moved all the people who hang out from the lobby to couches and bookcases. They could play cards, and hang out with one another in a constructive environment.


Health and Well-Being Concerns

More serious, managers note, are concerns about the health and welfare of residents. “You have to really pay attention,” Warga-Murray says. “Some don’t have a family or friend support system to look out for them. That can be dangerous. We have gone into people’s houses and shut the stove off. Or we have made arrangements for a social worker.”

There are government and private senior outreach programs that can help. Warga-Murray observes that her agents make sure that boards are aware and have an  opportunity to take advantage of any senior program. “In many areas, for instance, hospitals will come into senior citizen buildings to give free flu shots. And in communities where they don’t have visits, we make sure they know about a program that is available so we can bus them to it if needed.”

Boards can set up simple, inexpensive programs on their own, as well. After a major snow storm a few years ago, for instance, the residents at one of the properties managed by Argo was concerned that the elderly could not get out of the house for basic supplies.

“We started a ‘Good Neighbor’ program,” recalls Levy. “People would complete forms saying they needed help, and then we created a list of those who were willing to assist. In Manhattan, you can call the corner store and have anything delivered. But elsewhere, people can become more homebound. In this case, we had a half-dozen people sign up to assist. That’s what cooperatives are all about.”

Boards can design even more elaborate programs. Waterside Plaza, a 1,470-unit rental on East 25th Street in Manhattan with 400 seniors, has a “Stay Well” program for its seniors. According to on-site manager Ruth Lerner, the property has a social services employee come by part-time, two mornings a week to check on the health and welfare of seniors who have signed up. “It helps us keep track of the people,” says Lerner. “ The Stay Well people will help at hearings on social security. They will arrange or help to arrange home attendance. There are a multitude of areas. And the thing is, this program can operate an place in a co-op or a rental.

According to Annie Levy, who runs the Stay Well Center at Manhattan Plaza, another rental, “this is not an expensive program. You don’t need a large staff or a huge space. You just need phones. We work with health, social work, and medical people to do assessments, to do educational activities.” Although she refuses to discuss actual prices, Levy says, “It’s cheap when you consider that one flood [caused by a senior citizen leaving the water running] or a fire because of a stove left on can cause 70 grand in damages or more. You want to hook up with people when they need it, not after the fact. This is about prevention.”

Amalgamated Warbass Houses, a 2,585-unit co-op in Brooklyn, which has a senior services program in place, spends $90,000 annually, and also obtains money from state grants. Rochelle Captan, the property’s resident manager, thinks it’s worthwhile. “Today, we have 1,500 seniors going on trips to museums, we have vans that takes people to doctors, and we have nurses  on staff. We have exercise classes, and a lecture series. It’s a great improvement. Before this, seniors used to sit in the lobby. They had nothing to do.”


Penn South Breaks Ground

The work done at the Penn South cooperative is a good example of what can be done to help seniors at all levels. The Penn South Program for Seniors (PSPS) was founded in 1996 by the residents of the Mutual Redevelopment Houses-Penn South Co-op and members of the National Association of Housing Cooperatives and the Coordinating Council of Cooperatives.  Its board consists of presidents of major housing co-ops, as well as leaders in the fields of health, social services, medicine, mental health, law, and gerontology.

The program began because the owners recognized the potential problem early on. Nat Yalowitz and his family moved into the co-op when it began in 1962. “In the early 1980s,” he explains, “my neighbors and I recognized that we had lot of older folks living here who were in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s who had simply aged in place.  With that acknowledgment, we also recognized that many of these older folks were showing some distress in terms of their social, physical, and emotional needs as people. Some people were not getting out for days at a time. There were calls to the management office which had a personal nature to them.”             Penn South was built as non-profit, limited equity co-op. Out of the 6,000 people who lived there, 4,200, or about 70 percent, were senior citizens. in 1983-84, with the board of directors’ support, Yalowitz conducted a survey of the entire co-op delving into health and social needs, and asking about specific requests for services.

There was a heavy return rate on the survey responses, and the answers revealed, in Yalowitz’s words, “the extent of need, as well as the intensity of need among a large percentage of seniors who responded.”

Those responses led the development of a pilot program, which the board supported and funded, to see if having a social worker on the site would meet some of the people’s needs. The success of that program – a great number of seniors used the social worker – resulted in the development of a comprehensive health and social services program on site.

After that, Yalowitz managed to get grant money – half-a-million dollars over two years from the United Jewish Appeal and other professional agencies – with the understanding that the board would support and later fund the project on its own. According to Yalowitz, after four years of operation, the board began to vote expenditures toward the program: $50,000 the first year, which in subsequent years increased to $125,000 a year. “This is simply a line item on the budget,” he notes, “and comes out of the monthly maintenance. When you figure it, that comes to about $45 a year, which is maybe $4 a month.”

A comprehensive on-site health service program was developed to help its seniors live independently at home. It has been active in promoting supportive services programs. Beth Israel and St. Vincent’s Medical Centers have opened medical practices at Penn South that coordinate with PSPS.

Besides  health care, the co-op developed a variety of educational, recreational, cultural and physical education programs. Long-time resident Paula Vogel, for instance, is part of a video group that creates biographical video programs of older people. She is also part of the art classes that not only paint and sketch but stage exhibits.

“We have a permanent show on the walls of the center,” she notes. Once a year, they have an outdoor show, at which 30 to 40 seniors, ranging from 60 to 90, display their work. “It is quite a spectacular thing,” says Vogel. There is also intergenerational work, including a 150-foot-long mural painted by seniors and children.

Harold Vander Malle, who has lived at Penn South for three decades, says the program has made a great difference in his life. “I started out in it kind of slow,” he recalls. “You have stereotypes to deal with. I didn’t know how a senior citizen is supposed to act. So I stuck my toe in very slowly, but by bit got involved. Now I have a very full plate.”

On a typical day in November, for instance, Malle spends the morning at the  Penn South adult day care center for memory retention people, listening to older people in the community who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. “We sit around and have a cup of coffee and cookies. Their short-term memory is basically gone but they have great long-term memories. Then we went outside, selected leaves, dried them off and glued them to big sheets of paper. It sounds corny, but the folks loved it. They pasted leaves on and designed it’ some signed their names if they could; but they all responded to the project.”

Later, he went to an intergenerational project: a puppet show. “It’s set up among youngsters and oldsters and in-betweeners. There are two dozen of us making a storyline and constructing hand puppets. Then we’re going to give a show.”

Malle and other seniors are also in a drama group that is rehearsing for a performance of Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty. “It’s so appropriate for our co-op,” he observes about the left-wing play from the ‘30s. “Lots of people here were activists, so this is right up our alley. It’s a lot of fun.”

“The major and simple objective of all the services and programs is to assist seniors to remain in their homes among family, friends, and neighbors,” Yalowitz notes. “I feel it is better than going into nursing homes or ‘adult’ facilities.”


Other Programs

Penn South’s program became a model for New York State’s 1994 National Occurring Retirement Communities legislation, which assistants in funding programs. There is about $1 million in grant money.

The state requirements include:

(1) A minimum of 50 percent of the housing units in the building must be occupied by residents who are 60 or over, or 2,500 units);

(2) The majority of the affected residents must be low- to moderate-income, as defined by federal guidelines;

(3) The property must have been constructed with government funds;

(4) The property cannot be designed specifically for the elderly (i.e., a senior residence or retirement community).

Although most co-ops and condos in New York do not fit these requirements,  Yalowitz says there are alternatives. Penn South set up the NORC Supportive Services Center in 1996. This a non-profit organization offers consulting services to housing companies both public and private throughout the U.S. It has helped co-ops in New York, Michigan, Maryland, and New Jersey.

N-SSC provides educational seminars and information materials and training programs to housing companies and others. The center will develop and administer an assessment survey to determine physical, social and community health needs to those living in the housing units. It will also help develop a professional services program and funding plans to support it.

The center will also assist the board of directors or owners in selecting a community agency as a provider services for on-site social and health services. It will also help in developing and monitoring a budget, and in setting it up as a 501(c)3 organization, which helps with tax deductibility.The center will also assist the organization in program evaluation, and provide ongoing consultation and project management.           

Yalowitz says there are currently 14 NORC programs in New York state organized by N-SSC. They are subsidized with state funds and serve thousands of seniors and their families. The programs coordinate with other organizations which provide services to seniors, including hospitals, government organizations, physicians, and other community service organizations. N-SSC fees range from $1,000 to $5,000 per service. If the co-op is non-profit, that can be less

“We realize that most of these programs exist in large housing developments like Penn South,” notes Yalowitz. “Last year, I began to bring together smaller housing developments in the same geographical areas. I’ve been talking to five smaller housing cooperatives on the Upper West Side [of Manhattan] about coming together to do this. You get five co-ops of 150 or 200 units each and you have the critical mass to do it.”


A Problem Not a Solution

Many think there is strength in creating such programs because they bring people together. Having a senior program is, says Penn South’s Vogel, “very useful and absolutely essential. It takes the burden off everyone, including the younger people who might be concerned about aging neighbors on the floors. And it does improve the atmosphere for all of us.”

“You are going to have hurdles,” says Yalowitz. “You have to overcome the inertia present in any large group. But if people understand the need, you can do it. If you don’t deal with it, problems will fester, people will get frustrated, and you enter into an era where there’s a destabilizing of the community. And you’ll have  lives prematurely deteriorating. If you get involved, it benefits everyone.”

In fact, Argo’s Levy doesn’t see senior citizens as a problem but as part of the solution. “If you make them a resource, you’ll find they’ll not have as many complaints. When someone is ignored, they only complain louder. If someone calls to make a complaint and you call them back immediately, you will get a more positive communication. Ignoring them is not the answer. Finding a solution is. Not everybody can afford to retire and go to Florida and not everybody wants to.”

HABITAT, January 1999