Marianne Schaefer in Bricks & Bucks
Gary Altman’s parents moved into Hillman Housing in Co-op Village on the Lower East Side in 1955, when they were newlyweds. Altman, one of four siblings, still lives in Co-op Village and is now president of its East River co-op board. Altman’s mother, age 87, is also still living there in her own apartment. She’s self-sufficient and an active member of a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community, or NORC, a program that provides health, housing and social services so that elderly residents can remain in their own apartments.
Bonnie Lumagui is the director of Co-op Village NORC, which is sponsored by the Educational Alliance and includes the neighboring co-ops of East River, Hillman Housing, Seward Park, and Amalgamated. “Over 40% of the residents in those co-ops are now over 60 years old, and many of them are original residents,” Lumagui says, adding that NORC assistance is available to “apartment buildings or housing complexes that were not specifically built for older persons, and do not restrict admission solely to older people.”
But helping the elderly is getting more expensive, and the city’s 28 NORCs find themselves in a financial squeeze. Lumagui says that even as the number of senior citizens was rising sharply, state funding remained flat for the last 20 years – until a vigorous lobbying effort persuaded state legislators to boost NORC funding by $1.65 million in the last legislative session. This included the reinstatement of $950,000 that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had proposed cutting.
“But with the money we have right now we won’t be able to grow or start more NORCs,” Lumagui says. “So we’ll seek a substantial increase in state funding in the next Request for Proposal. It’s very hard for NORCs to provide nursing at the current funding levels. That’s a huge expense.”
In order to get matching funds from the state and city, NORCs need a financial commitment from housing complexes, including co-ops and condos. Altman’s East River co-op board, for example, contributes $54,000 annually for NORC services. “You add playgrounds to your co-op,” Altman says, “basketball courts, fitness studio and all sorts of amenities. Now why wouldn’t you spend money to save lives? NORC brings nurses and help into the households of elderly residents, and they organize all sorts of activities and field trips. They offer daily entertainment, even sportive activities, lunches, you name it.”
Altman believes that a NORC membership also makes sense economically. “Potential buyers are happy to hear that we’re are part of NORC,” he says. “They know that we truly care about our residents. During Hurricane Sandy, for instance, when we didn’t have any water or electricity for several days, we got a list from NORC of all the elderly people in our co-op and we could go and knock on their doors. Or sometimes old people forget to pay their bills, or they might need public assistance. NORC will help with all of that.”
Lumagui, meanwhile, is getting ready for the next round of lobbying in Albany. “We hope (legislators) will realize how advantageous it is for the city and state to increase our funding,” she says. “The alternative would be nursing homes, and that would be much more expensive. Keeping the aging population healthy and stimulating their minds offsets a lot of health care costs.”
Altman adds, “I believe from the bottom of my heart that the money for NORC is the best money we can spend.”
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