A retirement community that helps people stay in their homes as long as possible

Spending time alone at home harmed my mother’s health. My brother and I noticed the first signs of a slight cognitive decline. His lifelines, two senior centers in his community, had closed due to the pandemic. In fact, she started one of the centers years ago and volunteered in the kitchen on Sunday mornings serving brunch to other seniors.

My mother turned 90 last year and my father passed away about 10 years ago. His circle of friends is shrinking. My brother told me to contact a local NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community). NORCs are residential areas where people stay in the community, raise families, and retire.

My mother lives in the Northwest Bronx, New York, which is NORC’s primary territory because it has a large working population of older people.

“The idea is to keep people in their homes for as long as possible,” says Bayla Butler, director of the Amalgamated Park Reservoir NORC which serves my mother’s area.

“We partner with housing, health care, social services, and other entities,” Butler says. “We provide programs for older residents so they can age in their own homes.”

NORC put me in touch with a nurse from the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, a NORC partner organization.

A partnership program sent a graduate student in occupational therapy from Columbia University in New York to my mother’s apartment. She spent a few hours watching my mom move around the apartment and recommended grab bars in the bathroom. The cost of the visit: $0. Installation costs nothing either. My mom paid for the grab bar.

Helping family members

The nurse also recommended a gerontologist because my mother was seeing a family doctor who had no experience caring for the elderly. She told me about the Center for the Aging Brain at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, and also gave me information on several topics: a fall prevention lecture, art classes (my mother taught art), financial and legal counseling programs, and other neighborhood activities.

When my mom had to fill out tax forms for her condo, a NORC administrator told me to bring her to the office and someone would help her fill out and legalize those forms. Again, there was no charge.

Initially, the nurse contacted me once a week; I believe she did it to make sure I was okay. Now she checks in every month. My mom doesn’t talk much on the phone. She has difficulty hearing even with hearing aids. Much of his hearing is gone.

While I am the main contact between NORC and my mother, NORC posts activity flyers in the lobby of her apartment building. NORC workshops and conferences are free. They also publish a newsletter, which lists upcoming events.

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Keeping care profitable

My mother’s NORC was one of the first funded in New York. Prior to overseeing the Amalgamated Park Reservoir NORC in the Bronx, Butler worked at one of the first NORCs in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“Here in the Bronx, we have 22 buildings, 1,800 apartments, and 40 percent of the units house people 60 and older,” Butler says. “We have a small team with two social workers and an administrative assistant. Our goal is to keep people healthy and living in their homes for as long and as safely as possible. It also saves money.

Funding for NORC programs comes from government agencies, such as the Department of Aging, and private organizations.

“NORC is a good example of an innovative approach to aging in place,” says Emily Greenfield, a professor at the Rutgers School of Social Work.

His early research published in the Journal of Aging Studies focused on NORCs and aging in place. It is a subject that she continues to study. His latest research published this year in the Journal of Aging and Social Policy focuses on inter-organizational interactions in age-friendly communities.

“Historically, supports for aging populations have been channeled through the health care system. It’s more cost effective to have a program like NORC in place,” says Greenfield. “Health care costs for aging Americans are prohibitive for many. Some older people do without it. In the long term, this increases the costs of care. NORC is community based and this community watches over its residents.

“NORC works partly because it’s flexible and not everyone uses it the same way,” says Greenfield. “Participants come out of their homes, interact and socialize. You get to know your neighbors and have a connection to your community. And this flexibility allows people to take advantage of the different programs that interest them.

A return to normal after pandemic containment

NORC, like other programs, has taken a hit during the pandemic. What hasn’t stopped are the calls and visits on the porch.

“When it was safe to do so, we would call our members and meet on their porches or in a nearby park,” says Sarah Z. Levinson, director of NORC St. Louis. “Everyone wore masks. These visits were essential for those who live alone.

Marge Fenster, 85 and a retired St. Louis teacher, agrees. “I was getting a phone call from Sarah asking if I would like a visit,” she says. “A few people were stopping outside. It’s a great way to see friends, exchange opinions and ideas, and meet up for a chat.

Fenster joined NORC St. Louis a few years ago. Annual NORC St. Louis membership is $35 for single and $50 for couple.

“Some of the programs are slowly coming back,” says Fenster, adding that she has participated in jewelry-making classes and exercise programs.

“We’ve had ice cream parties where an ice cream truck goes to a few different buildings and NORC residents can sit outside and enjoy ice cream and conversations,” says Fenster.

She also had the help of NORC volunteers for gardening work. “I provided the tools and the bags, and they came and beautified the garden.”

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A host of NORC benefits

NORC has other benefits “When I go out to eat with friends who aren’t NORC members, I show my NORC membership card and the whole table gets a discount,” says Fenster.

“My mom is active and loves being around people,” says Amy Fenster Brown, Marge’s daughter, who also lives in St. Louis.

“As she gets older, her network of friends changes and, thanks to NORC, grows,” she continues. “I call his friends the ‘widows brigade.’ People who live alone want to go do things. They want to stay in the neighborhood. Socializing is so precious.

Emelda Harris, 89, another retired teacher from St. Louis, remembers filling out a questionnaire about her interests.

“Before the pandemic, we had a lot of outings to museums, restaurants where I could try new foods, concerts, exercise classes, lectures and so many different activities,” she says. “During the pandemic, I received calls from Sarah and other NORC staff asking if I needed help with anything.”

She took advantage of volunteers, found through NORC, who helped with repairs to the house.

“A volunteer fixed a leaky faucet and installed ceiling fans in my house. All I had to do was buy the parts. There was no charge to fix the faucet or install the ceiling fans,” says Harris.

“NORC is good at keeping in touch with its members. If you want to be busy, do things, see places and meet nice people, NORC offers it all,” she says. “I’ve lived in this community for twenty-six years and it’s good that I have this support in place.”

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Find a NORC near you

To find a local NORC, contact your state’s department of aging. NORCs are scattered throughout the country and are not in every state. If your state does not have a NORC, ask the department about other community services for seniors.

Michele C. Hollow is a freelance writer, editor, and ghostwriter specializing in health, climate, social justice, pets, and travel. Follow her on Twitter at @michelechollow.

This article is reproduced with permission from NextAvenue.org© 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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