A 72-year-old widow worried neighbors at the Deepdale Gardens cooperative in Little Neck recently when there were signs of a serious cockroach infestation. The elderly resident, who suffers from mental health problems, was a hoarder whose apartment was filled with clutter and garbage. The building’s maintenance staff tried to bring in an exterminator, but the widow’s home had become so filthy it could not be treated.
That’s when the board turned to Deepdale Cares, a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) program that operates out of Deepdale Gardens. NORC social workers called the woman’s son, who made an extended visit to have the apartment cleaned. Floors were scraped and polished, the walls painted, garbage removed, and beds and appliances replaced. Other social service agencies were called to provide counseling and services for the widow and her family.
If you are a NORC – a housing development or apartment building where at least 50 percent of residents are age 60 or older – your board should know that help is available. The government and privately funded programs for NORCs provide everything on site that an elderly population might need, from nursing services and transportation to entertainment and social activities.
Each NORC program is tailored to the specific requirements of the community. Some may prefer to use their funds to pay for computer classes, while others benefit from twice-weekly subsidized trips to the beauty parlor. Buses take seniors to doctor’s appointments and supermarkets. The North Shore-LIJ Health System donates free nursing three days a week, and volunteers from within the co-op have an established buddy system making phone calls twice a week to elderly residents to see if they are having any problems.
But be warned: the service doesn’t come cheap. Complexes have to give up some real estate so that the NORC staff can administer programs on site, and the co-op must contribute annual fees ranging from $25,000 to $45,000 a year, or about a sixth of the total cost of the service. The boards’ share could well go up in the future as the city and state face severe budget constraints, warns Karen Schwab, director of senior adult services at the Samuel Field Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association, which provides NORC services.
Still, even board directors who aren’t elderly now say the service is worth the price. Not only are NORCs good for the welfare of a cooperative’s more vulnerable residents, they can intervene before boards resort to legal action. If maintenance fees aren’t paid, for example, a few calls from a NORC volunteer might reveal that a resident is simply too frail to send them. And more serious damage, like a forgetful shareholder leaving the gas on or accidentally starting a fire, might be avoided if social workers are aware of potential problems.
“In the end, you probably save money through manpower,” observes Geoffrey Mazel, a partner at the law firm of Hankin, Handwerker & Mazel, who serves as the lawyer for Deepdale as well as Clearview Gardens in nearby Whitestone. Both complexes use NORC services provided through the Samuel Field Y and the United Jewish Appeal Federation.
Clearview, which has 1,788 units, signed up for the services a decade ago, paying $35,000 a year and providing NORC staff with renovated basement space. Deepdale, with 1,396 units, followed suit three years ago, paying $25,000 annually and providing aboveground basement space that wasn’t being used for any other purpose. Each program has registered about 700 residents, although services are available to others besides those who signed up. “We’ll still get involved if a senior is in trouble,” says Bonnie Honya, a Clearview board member and president of the Clearview System Program, which administers the NORC.
In order to qualify for government funding, more than half the residents using the services should be low- to middle-income. Not every co-op complex fits those requirements, of course. “Whenever funding comes up for NORCs, a lot of people compete for it, and when they don’t get it they ask, ‘Why not us?’” says Evelyn Deutsch, an 84-year-old widow, a board member of Deepdale, and now the administrator of Deepdale Cares.
In addition, there are no city or state funds slated for NORC systems. Community agencies like Samuel Field have lists of co-op boards waiting for the next round of funding, but she has no idea when that will be. Schwab suggests that board members interested in being considered as partners in a NORC program contact their local community groups and prepare ahead of time for when government funds are available. “When we do get them, the turnaround time is really fast,” she says.
Deutsch, who has spent most of her adult life living in the 50-year-old garden complex, admits that when funding for a NORC at Deepdale first became available, its benefits weren’t immediately obvious to other Deepdale board members. The Samuel Field Y had to make a pitch three times before all the board members agreed. Deutsch had heard of NORC services through media campaigns, so she and other elderly board members personally lobbied other directors to get them to vote in favor.
“Anything that you invest in you’re going to have division of opinion, and corporate boards would be loathe to spend money on anything if it doesn’t give them a return,” she explains.
Indeed, NORCs are a harder sell for a multigenerational board, and if younger members without elderly family members don’t see the need, they’ll vote against them. Attorney Mazel, for one, wasn’t initially convinced that a NORC was right for Deepdale. In addition to cost, he worried about liability issues, wondering if the co-op could be sued if elderly people, congregating for a NORC social activity, tripped and fell on the communal property. “It’s easy not to spend money and think you are being a good board director by saying ‘no,’” he says.
But he realized it was the right move when a shareholder had failed to pay his maintenance fees for several consecutive months. Building security guards were sent to check on him, but he didn’t answer the door. Eventually, the co-op started legal proceedings.
Then NORC staffers stepped in. They learned that the man, who was also mentally ill, couldn’t physically pay his fees because he was too weak. Social workers contacted his family, and when they refused to help, they arranged for him to stay in a nursing home for rehabilitation and they set up a payment system so that the property managers would receive future checks on time.
“I realized you can combine humane concerns with fiduciary responsibility,” Mazel observes, adding that he’s since called on NORC staffers at least a dozen times to intervene. He has realized the worth of the program, noting: “This is not just a bunch of old guys sitting around and playing checkers.”
For further details about NORCs in New York City, refer to the Directory of NORC Support Services Programs on the United Hospital fund website, www.uhfnyc.org or call 212-494-0700. Contact your local borough president for information about community groups that provide services for NORCs.