In between her Oscar-winning turn as a meddling Satanist neighbor in Rosemary’s Baby and her cult-favorite role as a Holocaust survivor who really knows how to live in Harold and Maude, the late great Ruth Gordon demonstrated her comedic chops to full advantage as senile Mrs. Hocheiser in Where’s Poppa? Directed by Carl Reiner, it’s a black comedy so transgressive, so politically incorrect on so many levels, that it flopped at the box office in 1970 and probably could not be made any more. It’s also bust-a-gut hilarious. The plot revolves around the extremely convoluted measures taken by Gordon Hocheiser (George Segal) in an effort to comply with his father’s deathbed command never, ever to put his batty mother in a nursing home, despite the fact that she’s ruining his life.
If you’re old enough now to be facing such decisions, either for an elderly parent or for yourself, then you can remember when being “put in a home” was indeed regarded as the most terrifying nightmare scenario for what are supposed to be one’s golden years. While the disproportionately high rate of nursing-home deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic serves as a sobering reminder that conditions aren’t ideal at some such institutions, standards have improved dramatically in the half-century since Where’s Poppa? came out. There are eldercare facilities in our own region with long waiting lists, renowned for their quality.
That being said, most older people prefer to “age in place” for as long as that remains possible — especially if they own their own homes. In many cases, where daily medical care isn’t yet necessary, it doesn’t take much assistance to make that manageable. The need is for someone who’ll shovel the front walk when it snows; provide a lift into town once a week; help bringing a heavy object down from the attic; perhaps providing guidance from a more computer-savvy person in filling out an online application. Different individuals have different needs, and most retirees have skills to offer others, as well as areas in which they occasionally need a hand – not to mention the spare time to help and the desire to feel useful.
In communities across the country, membership organizations have been popping up that connect older people who need assistance with volunteers who are ready to offer it. In the Hudson Valley, a network called Settled and Serving in Place (SSIP) opened in 2011 in the Route 209 corridor and has since spawned chapters in Kingston, New Paltz, Saugerties, Ellenville and the Taconic/eastern Dutchess area. What makes SSIP somewhat different from other such organizations is implicit in the “Serving” part of the name: an emphasis on making it easy for members to contribute, and not merely feel needy.
“People really enjoy helping each other,” says ViVi Hlavsa of the group that she founded in 2011. A former English professor from Queens who eventually retired to her “weekend place” in the hamlet of Lomontville, Hlavsa decided to reach out to neighbors to form a helping network. Her first stop was the Stone Ridge Library. “I asked the lead librarian to put a notice in the Library News,” she relates. To her surprise, “forty people showed up” to the organizing meeting. “I handed out cards asking for what kind of things you can do for people. Everyone wrote down a lot of things they could offer, and very few things that they need. That’s the way people are.”
That informal database morphed into a phone tree in which a SSIP member who needs a service – whether one-time or ongoing – gives Hlavsa a call. She consults another member who manages the list of skills and services, via a special phone dedicated to such requests. Matches are made quickly and a helper dispatched, often a close neighbor who can arrive on short notice. “One time I talked to a woman who needed her husband’s walker brought up from the basement. We found someone who lives half a block away,” she recalls.
Other needs may call for a longer-term commitment. One member who was undergoing chemotherapy was unable to drive herself to her hospital check-ins and do other errands. “She needed rides five days a week to different places. So I got five people to each take a day. That lasted for about six months.” Another member, now in her 90s, needs a visit twice each day, and SSIP has the resources on hand to help keep her thriving in her own home.
Surprisingly, says Hlavsa, “The most important thing is socialization.” People meet while helping one another and end up discovering common interests and forming friendships. Some visits involve reading aloud, doing a puzzle or going to the movies together, rather than household chores or errands. A core group of about ten active members of SSIP 209, out of 40 or 50 total, meets weekly for breakfast at Lydia’s Café in Stone Ridge to exchange information as well as simply hang out. “We share our jokes and sorrows.” It’s also a good way to find out the latest tip on which local handyperson is reliable and offers a discount to SSIP members.
During the pandemic, those meetings shifted to Zoom, which was an education in modern electronic technology for many members, and a new tool in their toolboxes. In-person assistance required special measures to protect against possible infection. “We had somebody who needed a light bulb changed. The volunteer had to be really careful and wear a mask.”
Happily, the live weekly meetings have resumed, and people interested in joining the group are welcome to check it out. “Just show up. Come to the meeting nearest you,” Hlavsa urges. Even the modest $25 annual membership fee can be waived, if it presents a hardship. Although most members are over 50 years of age, there’s no limit. Everyone is welcome. “The main thing we want is for people to show a commitment.”
ViVi Hlavsa, 706-0182, 331-0155, firstname.lastname@example.org
All are welcome to join us in room M 15 any Tuesday or Wednesday. ViVi Hlavsa, 191 Lapla Road, Kingston (845) 331-0155.