By Karen Zautyk
“Do you need anything?” “How can we help?” Or maybe just, “How are you?”
The questions are simple. But to someone who has little human contact, they mean the world. And, unfortunately, as the population ages — and lives longer — more and more Americans are finding themselves alone and feeling lost.
In this town, there is a concerted effort to reach out to senior citizens, not only through the usual clubs and other activities designed for them, but also through personal phone calls. At least twice a month.
It’s communication that was heretofore lacking for some. But it is so much more. The call recipient is reminded that he or she is not completely alone.
Someone cares. Someone is there to offer assistance that might be needed.
The Senior Call program, operated by the Department of Public Affairs and Department of Health, came about thanks to Commissioner Steven L. Rogers, who is known for adding that personal touch to his professional duties.
(Example: He’s in his office at 149 Chestnut St. every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon, available “to any citizen who wants to see me.”)
Rogers, believe it or not, also is determined to knock on every door in this town, just to introduce himself to his constituents and to hear their concerns.
Every Saturday afternoon, starting at 1 p.m., he sets out on his weekly “How Ya Doin’? Walking Tour” of Nutley, averaging 50 to 100 door knocks, “just to see if people need anything.” It was during these tours that he became aware of the special needs of many seniors.
“A lot of them were really lonely,” he told us, “not getting out, not having many visitors.”
“The overwhelming problems,” he said, “are depression and loneliness.” But thanks to Senior Call, “a lot of them are being pulled out of the darkness. They are getting help from us, a lot of help.”
Rogers’ staff members, and the commissioner himself, make the twice-monthly calls to seniors registered with the program, which is free and was launched in 2012. They can sign up themselves or a family member can register them. So far, Rogers noted, about 400 seniors are on the list “and the number is growing every day.”
In addition to offering direct contact with their local government, the program has had unexpected results. “A lot have overcome loneliness,” Rogers explained. “They are visiting others and getting involved in senior clubs, and we now have seniors calling other seniors. A lot of sad faces have turned into smiles.”
On one of his pre-Senior Call walking tours, the commissioner recalled, “a 92-year-old woman answered the door, crying.” (“Talk about timing,” he said.)
“She had lost her husband and had been depressed for several years. She had no family, no children. She was alone. We got her some counseling. And now, once in awhile, SHE calls ME!
“This was a soul that was really hurting,” Rogers continued. “We were able to help, with just a knock on the door.”
The problems the callers handle are “myriad,” Rogers notes. Medical problems and family problems are common, though, and the callers are there to lend an ear and to assist where they can. Medical problems can be especially critical, and the calls allow the staffers to perhaps detect a health issue that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.
If a health issue is detected, be it physical or emotional, the caller might invite the senior to the department offices on Chestnut St. or send a public health nurse to the residence. A licensed psychologist is also on the Health Department staff, and Rogers noted that “there is another psychologist in town who has stepped up to do pro bono counseling.”
He described Senior Call as “probably one of the most cost-effective public health programs offered by a local government. There’s practically no cost. Just the cost of a phone call.”
Rogers has already met with the League of Municipalities and will meet again this year with the goal of encouraging other communities to adopt a program like Senior Call. He is hopeful that this will happen in the near future.
In Nutley, there is another outreach-to-seniors effort: Adopt a Grandma (or Grandpa). High-schoolers write letters to seniors. They’re penpals.
Noting that the “internet has helped isolate seniors,” Rogers said, “We’re going back to 19th and early 20 century methods of communication: knocking on doors and writing letters.”
The bottom line is that Nutley’s senior citizens “know they’ve got a friend in this department and on our nursing staff,” Rogers said, adding: “And a little love doesn’t hurt.”
(To register for Senior Call or for more information, call the Department of Public Affairs at 973-284-4976.)