‘Aging redefined’: County launches ‘a senior center without walls’

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“I miss my Nana,” says one square of the Albany County Quarantine and Memorial Quilt while others depict a crying eye and a broken heart. On the lighter side, still others show a rainbow, a stack of toilet paper, and two little girls in separate boxes connected by a heart. It was sewn together by Eileen Pasquini and Kathy Kotlow.

ALBANY COUNTY — The isolation caused by the pandemic — particularly hard on the elderly — has spawned both a quilt memorializing those who died and a new program, the Campus for Creative Aging, which was announced on Tuesday as the first in the state.

Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy described the new initiative during a press conference on Tuesday morning as “a senior center without walls.”

The county’s Department of Aging will now be housed in an unused portion of Shaker Place, the renovated county’s nursing home. Larry Slatky, who directs the home, worked with Commissioner for Aging Deb Riitano, with support from the county legislature to develop the program.

Carol McLaughlin, who chairs the legislature’s Elder Care Committee, said her mother, Vidie McLaughlin, spent the last four or five months of her life at the county’s nursing home. “Senior services without walls is sorely needed in Albany County ...,” she said. “We all hope to get there one day and we want to make sure things are in place.”

The days of people in their forties or fifties being considered old are gone, said McCoy “We’re living longer,” he said, stating that soon half the world’s population will hit the age of 100. “But it’s about quality of life … As a community, we have to take care of our seniors.”

According to the World Health Organization, the number of people aged 60 and over as a proportion of the global population will double from 11 percent in 2006 to 22 percent by 2050. By then, there will be more older people than children (aged 0 to 14 years) in the population for the first time in human history, 

Five years ago, McCoy said, Albany County was chosen by the United Nations’ World Health Organization to participate in the Age Friendly initiative.

As part of the initiative, which will focus on arts like music and theater, as well as education, caregivers for the elderly will be able to leave the people at the campus for a day or even a week when they need respite.

 McCoy said there is a “need to re-energize … so you can continue to give that loving care to that person in your life.”

He also said, “We’re human. We all need breaks in life.”

Albany County has over 60,000 seniors and, before the pandmeic, had developed programs like congregate meals, where seniors gather to eat together; or Go & Dine where seniors received free vouchers to eat out at restaurants; or The Doctor Is In, a program where seniors would gather once a month to listen to a doctor speak on a topic of interest to elderly residents.

Riitano said that, since she started in her post three years ago, “It seemed to me a new way of doing business for our senior community needed to be created.”

She went on, “The pandemic, with all its destruction, also enabled us to reimagine aging.”

Having her department housed in the tower at Shaker Place, Riitano said, “is the perfect way to begin a new transformation for aging. Accessibility for seniors is a basic ingredient.” The tower was unused after the nursing home underwent an $80 million upgrade, which the county’s comptroller, Susan Rizzo, termed “a well-kept secret.”

Rizzo said that she had been a caregiver for two years and understood the importance of respite for caregivers who work on the front lines.

Saint Peter’s Health Partners had refitted rooms in the tower to house COVID-19 patients if hospitals ran out of room during the post-holiday surge of the disease but the space was never needed for that.

“If you can’t come to us,” said Riitano of the new program, “we’re coming to you. As a hub for knowledge and connection, the Campus of Creative Aging will offer programming to explore passions, purposes, and possibilities.”

She named some of the services that will be offered such as educational programs in computers, Zoom training, and iPhone help as well as discussion groups, lectures, special events, and informational services. Those programs that can’t be held on site will be conducted  at “a senior center without walls,” she said.

Riitano mentioned some of the county’s pre-pandmic programs and said that the popular restaurant program took on a new form during the pandemic, providing take-out opportunities for seniors.

“Who knew that that program would continue to help our older adults with isolation, which was caused by COVID, and, at the same time, help small restaurants keep their doors open?” Riitano asked.

“This is aging, redefined,” she said. The staples offered by her department will continue, she said, naming counseling on topics ranging from insurance to nutrition, transportation, home delivery of meals, and legal assistance among others.

“We want to embrace the arts in various forms through this new endeavor,” said Riitano, naming painting, theater, story telling, and music as being “on the list of inter-generational efforts.”

Her department also initiated the creative project that produced the Albany County Quarantine and Memorial Quilt, which was to combat isolation and let people express their feelings about the pandemic, Riitano said.

Members of the community were invited to make individual quilt squares. Some of the squares memorialized people who were killed by COVID-19, teling “the story of the dark moments of COVID-19,” Riitano said.

The quilt also features squares depicting lighter moments. “The quilt is one which touches the heart and the funny bone all at once,” said Riitano.

It will be displayed at venues throughout the county, she said, before it is permanently housed at the county’s Hall of Records.

“We welcome everyone at our table,” Riitano concluded.

More Regional News

  • The Guilderland Planning Board recently heard Borrego Solar Systems propose a five-megawatt ground-mounted solar facility at 2825 Curry Road, a well-screened-from-the-road 48-acre parcel located in a largely commercial area. 

  • Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen warned, “I don’t think we’ve crossed the finish line yet …. I do not believe at this point herd immunity has been achieved and I think that this is something we can continue to work towards.”

  • While statewide, New York reached the 70-percent mark of adults with at least one dose of vaccine, lifting restrictions, vaccination rates vary across the state. On Friday, the state’s vaccine tracker started listing the rates according to ZIP code.

    In Albany County, the lowest rate of residents who have received one dose is 1222 in Albany at 7.7 percent and the highest is 12007 in Alcove at 100 percent.

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