Sunday, February 24, 2008

February Poems

Since I posted another (long) chapter in my career as a gerontologist last time, I'd like today to share a (short) poem. I get especially inspired in winter. This is one of my favorites. As is often the case, inspired by the NY Botanical Gardens.

A Walk in Frigid February

The woods are wallowing
in wanton whiteness.
All darkness has departed
to a dwelling deep within.

It fills me with a coldness so complete
I cannot feel
I cannot breathe
I cannot hope

The earth is glistening
in raptured repose,
the lustre of lovemaking
aglow on her snowy skin.

New secrets wait to be
revealed in icy silence
resplendent in the celebrating sun.

The river rails in frigid February,
releasing scarlet sparklers
in random revelry,
reflecting starry spirals
in his wailing waters.

It fills me with an awe so incomplete
I cannot feel
I cannot breathe
I cannot know

yet I can hope

A gift of time interrupted
upon a stony bridge.

copyright E. Ramos 2/20/00

Friday, February 22, 2008

My Career in Gerontology: Assistant Director

My next position with Catholic Charities was Assistant Director of the Department of the Aging. The department grew out of a task force in the late 1970’s to address the “graying” of the Archdiocese. Under the leadership of a former deputy commissioner in NYC’s welfare department, a staff of 20 persons was responsible for reaching out to the 400+ urban, suburban and rural parishes of the New York Archdiocese.

I joined the department in 1981, as director of its city and state funded Recreation Program for the Elderly, which provided technical assistance, trips and teachers to parish senior clubs. (See February 6th blog - What I did all day as a Gerontologist.)

In 1987 I became Assistant Director of the department. My job responsibilities included: overseeing a NYC funded senior center and homemaker program in the South Bronx; supervising the Grants Program, the Recreation Program and the regional field workers who provided consultation and technical assistance to the parish outreach programs to the homebound. Supervision is not my strong point and I worked very hard, taking advantage of every training opportunity to hone my skills.

When I left Catholic Charities after 25 years of service, I felt that what I would miss most was the people I worked with. However, over the years, we did have a few characters that kept me on my toes as a supervisor. Much of my time was spent guiding the workers, helping them set goals and reach out to the parishes, encouraging the parishes to begin programs to reach out to their homebound elders or convincing them that we could help their volunteers with training from our staff. It is amazing to me how hard it was to get parishes and volunteers to accept free training. In those days, we even had a “carrot” to dangle before them, small grants to help them get started.

In the early days of the department, we struggled to come up with a mission statement, goals and objectives. As you can imagine, several hours a week were given to staff meetings, not much fun.

The greatest challenge was in designing a model of a parish outreach program, that would give parish volunteers the tools that they needed to be effective ministers to the frail homebound elderly they served. We never quite knew when a parish “program” could be named as such, despite our considerable resources, including a sizable parish grants program. “Training” on the parish level varied with individual staff consultants.

I also spent a great deal of time with the South Bronx Senior Center, monitoring their budget, their case management files, and helping the director deal with personnel issues. City contracts are unbelievably mired in bureaucracy – and you know how I feel about that! We were attempting to renovate a Parish Hall in which to relocate the program and make it accessible. Despite the cooperation of my program officer at the city, there were just too many hurdles to overcome. In addition, the program was being subsidized by Catholic Charities, which was facing a fiscal crisis. We decided to give up the contract, a difficult decision indeed. It was a very dark time, trying to find another sponsor and eventually closing the center and transferring the clients to other centers and programs.

Shortly after I became assistant director, Cardinal Cooke died and John Cardinal O’Connor became the spiritual leader of the Archdiocese. We proposed an annual Mass for Older Adults at St. Patrick’s Cathedral at which the Cardinal would present Good Samaritan Awards to outstanding senior volunteers from all over the Archdiocese. This spiritual event would replace the annual Christmas Brunch at Lindy’s. And all the parishes could be invited.

What a major project this turned out to be! The entire staff was involved in organizing the event. As its coordinator, I believe that I spent most of 9 months preparing for the first Mass for Older Adults. The cathedral has a master of ceremonies, with whom I worked to coordinate the events of the day. Plus I had to work with the director of music to select the hymns and the director of liturgy to select the readings for the Mass. I learned a lot that year. Picking the awardees and getting them approved was another major undertaking. There was also the selection of gift bearers and lectors; some years we had celebrities doing the readings, which meant more approval. We needed to publicize the event, get out invitations to all the parishes, including transportation for many. Some seniors from the rural counties traveled close to three hours to get to the Mass. The first Mass turned out to be a wonderful spiritual event, despite competition from the Polish Day Parade on Fifth Avenue. Over 1500 seniors met their new archbishop. The Mass continued to be an annual event for many years until shortly before Cardinal O’Connor’s death.

One of my favorite achievements as Assistant Director was the organization of parish senior leaders and staff into support groups on a regional basis serving over 100 Manhattan, Bronx, Staten Island, Westchester, Rockland, Dutchess and Ulster parishes. At meetings we provided speakers, information, technical assistance and educational materials on aging for the parish coordinators to share with their volunteers and homebound elders. This was also key to spreading the word about the importance of trained outreach volunteers. It gave parish leaders a chance to know and learn from one another.

Finally, I represented the Archdiocese on the Elderly Services Committee of the New York State Catholic Conference from 1987 to 1990. It was another step in my education in public policy, advocacy and the legislative process. I traveled to Albany several times a year, where we met with key legislators and networked with my colleagues from other NYS dioceses.

When the director of the Department of the Aging retired in 1990, during a major financial crisis, staff cuts and a re-structuring period at Catholic Charities, I became responsible for the overall operation of the department. After about one year, a decision was made to de-departmentalize the Department of the Aging, and to merge its remaining staff into another department. For me, this was both a personal failure and an opportunity to start over, with the support of new colleagues. The lesson learned was that out of great pain and loss may come hope and new growth and this lesson impacted my own personal spiritual journey. Out of a new team approach to goal setting, we chose a new name for our program - Ministry to Seniors and with new staff, we designed model programs with structured parish volunteer training and accountability components. But more about that later …….

Friday, February 15, 2008

Valentine Reflection

In the spirit of Valentine's Day, let me share this reflection that I received from the leader of our spiritual direction group. It's by one of my favorite writers, Feodor Dostoevsky.

Love all that has been created by God, both the whole and every grain of sand.
Love every leaf and every ray of light.
Love the beasts and the birds, love the plants, and every separate fragment.
If you love each separate fragment, you will understand the mystery of the whole resting in God.
When you perceive this, your understanding of this mystery will grow from day to day until you come to love the whole world with a love that includes everything and excludes nothing.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

What I did all day as a Gerontologist

The appeal of gerontology is that there are so many possibilities for job opportunities. From working as a recreational therapist in a nursing home to running a senior center for active older adults. From developing policy in the field of aging to counseling family caregivers. After I graduated with my Masters in Gerontology in 1981, I went to work for Catholic Charities, where I had a number of positions over my 25 years of service to the elders of the Archdiocese of New York.

My first job was Coordinator of the Recreation Program for the Elderly. Since I was going through serious personal issues at the time – my grandmother had Alzheimers and my Mom, her principal caregiver, was dying of cancer – I decided that I wanted a “fun” job, without life and death components. Recreation seemed just right. I worked with 100 New York City parish clubs. With a grant from NYC’s Department for the Aging, we provided the clubs with money for trips, hired crafts and exercise teachers to lead enrichment classes, and did site visits to make suggestions for enhanced programming. Most of the clubs were weekly coffee, cake and Bingo gatherings, so adding a gifted teacher to teach painting was a real plus.

One of the projects I designed during my tenure as recreation coordinator was “Celebrating Life” which was funded by a local bank. We trained our instructors to translate life history into crafts projects. I loved the process. Visiting the different parish groups and listening to their stories. Some were quite poignant - the first meeting of a Bronx woman with her sister from Ireland; a painful hurt from long ago that still needed to be healed; a woman who had experienced a vision. It was very inspiring.

“Celebrating Life” was a great success and we held an exhibit at the Catholic Center to highlight the finished parish projects. A Manhattan parish club collaborated on a montage of their memories. A Bronx parish did a felt “painting” of their church, with their taped memories. A Harlem parish decorated the parish hall with mementos of the past. A Staten Island club held a fashion show, featuring a wedding gown from fifty years before. I can still see the seniors explaining their works of art to teenagers from Cathedral H.S., who attended the event.

My job responsibilities included: writing funding proposals, supervising an assistant, scheduling the teachers, writing reports, etc. But the best part of this job was getting out to the different parishes and seeing the clubs in action. This refreshed and re-energized me when I was feeling frustrated, overwhelmed or tired of the paper work. The Archdiocese is so diverse: it runs the gamut from poor to wealthy parishes, with so many different races and ethnic groups. One of my challenges was to integrate the Spanish speaking seniors with the Irish and German English speaking seniors in a Bronx parish. A wonderful priest there celebrated a bi-lingual Mass at a long table with all the seniors sitting around the table and participating.

To bring the different cultures together, we also held an annual picnic, usually hosted by the Staten Island clubs, so that they could intermingle and get to know each other. Unfortunately, at one picnic, a Bronx senior tripped over a tree root and broke both arms. My staff spent most of the time in the local Emergency Room. We also had an annual Christmas Brunch at Lindy’s Restaurant in the Empire State Building, provided by Cardinal Cooke’s boyhood friends, who owned a chain of restaurants. Do you think that putting that event together wasn’t hard work!

To be continued...