20 Jan Providing “Help Insurance”, Senior Women Have Each Other’s Backs
Eileen Kobrin was 71, lived in New York City and led a busy, active life, but like many seniors who live alone, she worried that an accident would compromise one of the things she valued most–her independence. Two years ago, while on vacation, Eileen tripped and fell, breaking her ankle in several places.
The Caring Collaborative rallied to support Eileen
Thankfully, this Kaiser Health News story has a very happy ending. Eileen belongs to a Caring Collaborative Network, and the women in her group sprang into action to care for her. One member recommended an excellent ankle surgeon at the nearby hospital, who successfully operated. Once Eileen returned to her apartment with instructions to stay off her feet for two long months, other Network members brought over a wheelchair, a bath chair and an elevated toilet seat.
Every single day someone from the group arrived with lunch or dinner; some members just checked in to keep her company. “It was a tremendous outpouring of support–one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.”
Bringing senior women together to help with short-term illness or disability
The Caring Collaborative program originated a decade ago in New York City and has spread to Philadelphia and San Francisco. It brings senior women together to help one another when short-term illness or disability strikes. It fills a need that our healthcare system and other organizations don’t provide.
Most Caring Collaborative members are like Eileen—senior women who live alone and worry about finding this kind of support in the event of illness or accident. Many of them don’t have a strong support system, and their families are scattered around the country. In many cases, their friends have died, developed dementia, or become otherwise incapacitated. An estimated 35% of women 65 and older fall into this category. For those 75 and above, the number is higher, at 46%.
In a different time, these women might have relied on nearby family, neighbors, or their churches for support. But today’s families are dispersed, neighbors are often strangers and churches reach fewer people than in the past. Caring Collaborative is, at its core, a networking group, a way to meet new people and form relationships.
The Caring Collaborative has three core components
- Information exchange. Members share information about medical conditions and medical providers.
- Service corps of women who volunteer. This group provides hands-on assistance to other members.
- Small neighborhood groups. These women meet monthly to discuss health topics and share personal concerns.
In New York City, many members are retired professionals who want to make new friends and explore activities after leaving the workforce. They often have similar interests and experiences to share.
Focused on her career at the expense of relationships
Barbara Alpern is the current chair of New York City’s Caring Collaborative. She joined four years ago after retiring from a long career in employee benefits consulting and becoming ill with complications from diabetes. Unmarried, she lives alone and had focused on work at the expense of friendships. “I realized I had nobody I could easily count on.”
Within months of joining the organization, Alpern sent out a request for somebody to pick her up from a colonoscopy and escort her back home. The woman who responded invited her for breakfast; over bacon and eggs they discovered a mutual love of theater. Several gettogethers followed and a new friendship was formed.
One loner forms her own neighborhood group
Naomi Goodhart, 64, who also lives alone, became a member after stepping down from a longtime position as a corporate executive assistant. “I’ve been a loner my entire life and have found making friends extremely difficult.” Since getting involved with the Caring Collaborative, Goodhart has formed a new neighborhood group in her area. She now describes herself as “the happiest I’ve ever been” because of a satisfying sense of purpose and the relationships she’s developed.
For emergencies, it’s still best to call 911
Responding to emergencies is not part of the Caring Collaborative’s mission; instead, it recommends that people still call 911.
“Help insurance”. Plan for it before you need it
Can the Caring Collaborative’s “mutual support in aging” program be replicated in other communities? Senior centers, aging organizations, senior housing complexes and other community groups could implement this information exchange component. One longtime health care executive and prior chair of New York City’s Caring Collaborative calls this “help insurance.” Unpaid, informal and essential.
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