When one has elderly parents, you never know when you may receive that call. That happened to me at 2 a.m. one night. My father called.
“Something’s going on with your mother,” he said, and put her on the phone. She was slurring her words badly and it sounded frightening. I leapt out of bed and got a cab to their house in time to see the EMT put her into an ambulance.
My mother had had a stroke at 73. The stroke was not catastrophic. Her cognition remained intact and her personality would settle into greater alertness than ever, but she was physically disabled forever, in a matter of hours. Her life was altered; our lives were on an irretrievable new course. This was18 years ago.
Some years later, I called my parents as I did regularly, and after speaking with my father, he said, “OK, have to go, volunteer is here.” Apparently, in one of his walks through the neighborhood, my father had come across Irene Zola, founder of an organization called Life Force in Later Years (known as Lily for short), passing out flyers describing the organization. Lily aims to help elderly neighbors stay in their homes safely and happily for as long as possible. They do this through volunteers and the help of local resources to offer comfort.
Volunteers from All Backgrounds
I soon went to visit my parents when some volunteers were over, and I saw that their social activities were richer with the organization’s involvement. They connected my parents with a lovely young couple who played mahjong with them on weekends. When we met the couple they weren’t yet married, but after they married, they visited with their first baby, and even after they moved to New Jersey, they would stop by about once a year to say hello with their two children.
It was natural to be drawn to this community right in my neighborhood so in short time, I was participating in volunteer drives and fundraising activities. Irene in time invited me to join the board and then I was elected vice president. My neighborhood feels cozier and smaller now because of Lily.
Lily’s volunteers came from all backgrounds: professionals, retirees, artists, and with our proximity to Columbia University we had a number of students who found volunteering for Lily to be a rewarding contribution to the community. Brian played Chinese chess with my father every Sunday for his entire undergraduate career. Brian played until my father’s attention span withered and he could no longer hold the mental thread the game required. Two sisters who attended Columbia would visit my mother together. After graduating from Columbia - and several graduate degrees later - the two sisters still stay in touch with her and continue to have lunch and laugh together a few times a year.
When my father fell and had a brain bleed in 2014, we realized he couldn’t come home and had to place him in a long term care facility; he passed five years later. Paula Seefeldt, who started as a volunteer and is now the program director of Lily, came to care meetings for support. She was invaluable to me we explored different options and helped with the wrenching decision-making as I adapted to this new world of acute elder care.
Quality of Life
As a daughter who had two elderly parents who were both partially disabled, I was very involved their care, and even though now that I have just my mother, I feel blessed to have the support of this community. When parents reach an advanced age, their friends drop off and isolation become a natural outcome of later years. Lily is like the brother or sister I don’t have to help me maintain a quality of life for them while they are home.
An effort like this organically spawns new friendships and care. Elizabeth came to my mother as a volunteer. She had moved into the neighborhood from further downtown and came to introduce herself one day, perfectly groomed with a handbag hanging from her arm. We bonded over regular power walks together, compared local green market items and at one point, frequented a local restaurant so often that we dubbed it “the office.”
My mother called after one of our power walks, asking me to come over. “What happened?” I asked, immediately on the alert. She admitted that she fell, and I hurried over there. Mom had tripped and fallen on her face. She had split her lip, lost a tooth and there was a blood on the spot where she fell. She had to crawl over to her cellphone. (She had a life alert device but didn’t like wearing it.) I pressed gauze on her lip and called 911. Then I called Elizabeth.
We had just parted minutes before, but Elizabeth joined us in the ambulance to the ER. She injected levity and humor which in turn brought calm. We distracted my mother, and Elizabeth asked mom how to say words in Mandarin. My mother taught her silly Mandarin phrases as she was wheeled to radiology for a CT scan. To this day, there are phrases Elizabeth remembers and we know she learned them that day.
Lily is not just for our older neighbors; in operating and funding a loving neighborhood approach to elder care, Lily makes a huge difference for the families and grown children of these seniors. It can be overwhelming and it’s a lot to deal with to make sure your parents are all right.
The pandemic year has added an extra urgency to alleviating isolation and serving seniors. Even though in-person visits halted, Lily had a grocery program, picked up medications and trained seniors by phone on how to use tablet devices so they could enjoy Lily-run discussion groups and conferences.
My parents have had Lily volunteers weaving through their lives for the past 11 years. Volunteers don’t last forever, some graduate and move away, some expand their families, but new volunteers enter. We now have Ann calling and visiting my mother, and a jewelry beading group has resumed on a rooftop COVID safe space. Imagine how much better New York would be for seniors with more support based on the Lily model.
For more information on Lifeforce in Later Years or to donate:
The Lily Legacies Gala is on October 25, 2021. For more information:
Audrey Wu has been a Lily board member for the past eight years.