Returning Not Only to Normal, but to Better at Heights and Hills
This summer feels like a reawakening for so many of us. After more than a year spent almost entirely at home, we are now able to return to restaurants, stores and gyms. Seeing smiles on strangers while walking down the street feels like a revelation. But as we reemerge into our communities, there are things we learned about ourselves and each other that we should strive to maintain.
For Heights and Hills, which supports older adults and their caregivers in Brooklyn, the COVID-19 pandemic caused us to fundamentally change how we do our work. Now in our 50th year, we were formed by a consortium of local clergy, community groups, and activists to address the needs of an aging population in rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn Heights. Many clients lived in long-neglected SROs with no family supports as they aged.
As gentrification spread, we expanded our reach to serve Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill. Over the last five decades, we have expanded to cover half of Brooklyn and we have adapted our services to best meet the needs of the individuals and communities we reach.
While COVID-19 poses a serious health threat to all of us, the clients of Heights and Hills are particularly vulnerable. Working with older adults means that we are somewhat used to loss among our clients. During the pandemic, however, we saw a 25 percent increase in client death. While most of our clients remained healthy, they were able to avoid illness by staying home whenever possible. This kept them safe but increased their social isolation which puts them at risk for dementia and other serious medical conditions.
One focus of our work at Heights and Hills is increasing social supports of older adults. During the pandemic, we underwent a seismic shift in how we connected with clients as so much of our work in the past was done face to face. The Park Slope Center for Successful Aging is a community center for older adults that offers health promotion, social services, arts and cultural programming and social connectedness.
Previously, events at the Center were only accessible to those who could attend in person. Now, our programming is available over the computer and via phone and can reach our homebound clients as well.
We have launched a technology project to help clients gain access and learn how to connect to the virtual world. Thanks to a generous grant from the New York Foundation for Eldercare, we provided devices to 25 older adults, paid for one year of internet service, and provided a year of training and technical support in both one-on-one and group sessions.
Recognizing that the virtual world is not the only thing that people want, we also partnered with The Met, Citymeals on Wheels, the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music and artists to mail art materials to clients at their homes so they can continue to participate in enrichment programs.
We have always relied on volunteers to support our clients beyond what government contracts will provide. We have a Friendly Visiting program that pairs homebound older adults with a volunteer who meet with them on a weekly basis to prevent social isolation.
This year, the friends have only been able to meet by phone, but it has still been a lifeline to our clients. During the pandemic, we have learned to rely on volunteers in new ways – they are grocery-shopping for clients, delivering meals and making wellness calls.
Through these efforts, since the beginning of the pandemic, we offered ongoing case management services to 2,518 homebound older adults and provided short-term services to another 2,226. We assisted 2,191 family caregivers, led 167 support group sessions and 27 workshops. We were able to harness community support engaging 1,557 volunteers in ongoing and one-time service projects to assist our clients as they managed the fear and anxiety of the pandemic.
The program improvements that we made in response to COVID have been transformative for our clients such as “Brian.” He first connected with Heights and Hills two years ago when he was diagnosed with a serious illness. He has some support from two siblings who live in the area, but he lives alone and most of his family is too far to see in person.
Over the past year, he has been in and out of the hospital, dealing with health concerns. We were able to get him wireless headphones that allow him to listen to jazz while he is at medical appointments making them much easier to endure. And in the spring, he received a tablet through our tech project.
He has learned to use Facetime, Zoom and Whatsapp so that he can connect with friends and family. He is eager to learn more and get better at it. He has also expressed interest in possibly doing some online classes through zoom with the Center.
We were beyond excited to again welcome clients in person to the Park Slope Center for Successful Aging at the end of June. Seeing them in person has brought richness to our work and to their lives, but as we reopen, we will continue to provide support, classes and meals to those in their homes.
Forty-five percent of Brooklynites over the age of 65 live alone. Most of them are able to enjoy all that our borough has to offer, but many are homebound and experience the challenges so many of us faced during the pandemic. They miss human interaction and the freedom of a walk in the neighborhood.
The end of COVID-19 restrictions in New York will not end their isolation, but Heights and Hills will continue to employ the program enhancements we created during this period. We know that they will allow more people to remain engaged and connected to others in the community.
As we return to normal, we at Heights and Hills are looking to make sure it is a better normal for older adults in Brooklyn.
Heights and Hills, formed in 1971 in Brooklyn Heights, now supports more than 4,000 older adults and their families in Brooklyn with a variety of services.
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