Friday, October 31, 2008

Thanks for the Memories

I want to thank my daughter Lisa for adding her memories of Nanny in the comments on my "Tribute to Nanny" blog. That's why I love people to read my "memory" blogs and add their recollections of the same person or events. We all retain different parts of shared experiences - the whole story is enhanced when we put our memories together. I certainly will add her beautiful comments to my finished portrait of Nanny for "Grandma's Story".

But I must say something about Lisa's comments on Nanny's soft fluffy arms that she loved to play with. When I was about 10 years old, Nanny and Kiki would take me to Rockaway Beach on the subway. It was a long ride and I would rest my head against her soft arm like a pillow. It is a part of a prayer I composed to my God as "Grandmother God". "...... let me rest my weary head against your pillowy arm....."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Tribute to Nanny

This time of year brings back memories of my maternal grandmother: she was born in 1892 and died at age 90 on All Souls Day November 2nd. Nanny grew up in a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Her father was a furniture maker. The story goes that he got a splinter from some exotic wood he was working with, and the infection led to blood poisoning. He was stubborn and wouldn’t take the medicine the doctor prescribed; in fact he threw it out the window. And he died leaving my great grandmother with 3 small daughters. She was a hard working single Mom, who took in laundry to support her family. And they were staunch Catholics. Nanny spoke lovingly of “Third Street Church” (Most Holy Redeemer, which is still there, the German cathedral of NYC). Nanny attended MHR school, where she learned German. Her uncle was a priest and a monsignor, who we went to visit every year in his parish in Poughkeepsie, NY.

Nanny spoke of her mother as a stern disciplinarian. When little Nanny tore her apron, she would go to her aunt, who would mend it. They lived in poverty but did not think of themselves as “poor”; but there were regrets. Like having to walk all the way uptown because they couldn’t afford the streetcar. But the worst was that Nanny was not allowed to go to High School, even though she had a scholarship and graduated top of her 8th grade class. Her mother insisted she go to work in the garment industry to help support the family. Even in old age, Nanny spoke bitterly of her disappointment that she could not study to be a teacher. She encouraged us to become teachers. Only my daughter, who homeschools, became a teacher. I hope Nanny is smiling down at her today. I think she is.

I am grateful for Nanny’s presence in my life. She was my refuge, my anchor, my inspiration. Perhaps because of the contrast of her personality to my Mom’s, her daughter. Nanny evoked an aura of calm, quiet, orderly and slow, deliberate movement, while Mom’s space was chaotic, her pace frenetic, and the decibel level in our quarters – way up there. From my earliest memories, I would escape to my grandparents’ apartment on the 2nd floor of our three-story brownstone. Especially when it got too noisy or crowded at my place. I would creep quietly down the “private hall”, out the door, up the stairs and see the entrance to their apartment. It was a promise of peace and tranquility, still an image of heaven to me.

Nanny would be sitting at the table reading the Journal American, or doing the Word Jumble, while peeling an orange. Pop-Pop was dozing in his easy chair and Kiki, Nanny’s younger sister, was busy cleaning up in the kitchen. When my Mom tried to toilet train me at age 1, because my cousin supposedly was toilet trained, Nanny let me “go in my pants” behind the chair in her living room. She accepted me for what I was, just like most grandparents do with their grandkids. Like I try to do with mine.

I can see her walking slowly up the street with her shopping cart. She had her daily routine. Her unconditional acceptance of me and calm, orderly manner was what drew me to her – and to all older people. It determined my choice of career in aging services, work I love and treasure.

Oh yes, she had her anxieties and prejudices as well. But as I got older and exposed her to new fangled 60’s ideas, she grew as well. At first she was dismayed at my Puerto Rican boyfriend, but as time went on and she got to know the man I married, they became great buddies. Even when I got older and didn’t spend as much time with Nanny, I tried to support her, especially when Pop-Pop developed dementia. Later I tried again so hard to help my Mom take care of Nanny when she got Alzheimers. When Nanny died, I couldn’t mourn. I felt she had died long ago and I didn’t know when I had lost her. But I still miss her today. She would be 116 years old! Boy does that make me feel old!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Poverty and the Elderly - Part 2

The first part of my blog on Poverty and the Elderly is below - October 15th. The following is a continuation of excerpts from "Under the Radar: Poverty Among Older Adults in New York City" (May 2007 New York Citizens’ Committee on Aging, Inc.)

With such low incomes, many seniors have a difficult time covering even their most basic expenses. Nearly half of all renters age 65 or older in New York City spend at least 35 percent of their household income on rent. In addition, research shows that on average older Americans spend 19 percent of their total income on “out-of-pocket” medical expenses annually, with more than half of these payments going toward prescription drugs and dental care (despite Medicaid coverage for many). (Crystal, S.; Harman, J.; Sambamoorthi, U.; Johnson, R.; And Kumar, R. "Out of Pocket Health Care Costs Among Older Americans." Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 55B, no. 1 (2000): S51–S62.) As a result, debt has increased substantially among the senior population. Debt held by families headed by a person age 75 or older increased to 40.3 percent in 2004; this is up from 29.0 percent in 2001.12 A recent study by the Food Bank of New York City has shown that nearly one-fifth (18 percent) of older people in the City are without savings and “would not be able to afford food for themselves and their families immediately after losing only one month of income.” (The Food Bank for New York City. “Hunger: An Aging Issue,” 2005.) Seniors disproportionately rely upon emergency food pantries and soup kitchens in New York City. While only 12 percent of the City’s total population, New Yorkers age 65 or older account for 24 percent of all emergency food participants.

Generally speaking, there are three groups of seniors who descend into poverty (i.e. experience a large and ongoing discrepancy between income and expenses). These three groups include: 1.) those who have been economically insecure throughout their lives and thus have few resources; 2.) those who had limited resources for retirement (such as pensions) but experienced a diminution of them; and, 3.) those who undergo a crisis or other unforeseen event that rapidly plunges them into poverty (such as the death of a spouse). For a good number of these seniors living in poverty, the prospect of a golden retirement simply does not exist. As a result of various factors, seniors most at risk of experiencing poverty brought on by one of the situations described above include: women; those over age 75; individuals with disabilities or chronic health problems; immigrants; ethnic and racial minorities; those who live alone; and those less formally educated. Moreover, individuals with more than one of these characteristics are at increased risk.

The Future Outlook
New York City’s elderly population, which stood at 937,900 in 2000, is projected to increase to 1,352,000 by 2030 – this represents a 44.2 percent increase. If poverty were to remain at the City’s current 20.3 percent level, (actually more like 32% according to the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity’s more realistic poverty measure) over 274,000 older New Yorkers will live in poverty by 2030 -- this represents a 70 percent increase from 2005. The problem of poverty among New York City’s older population must be addressed now to assure quality of life is protected and enhanced for both the current and future generation.

This report was completed by Board Members of the New York Citizens’ Committee on Aging: Jessica Walker, Senior Policy Analyst at United Neighborhood Houses of New York; with Mary Mayer, NGO Representative of the United Nations’ International Federation on Ageing and Former Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Department for the Aging.
I am happy to say that the organization I work for, the New York Citizens’ Committee on Aging, has made this a priority project – using our resources and reaching out to the community to help us make a difference in lifting NYC's seniors out of poverty. For a copy of our full report and information on how to get involved e-mail me at or call 212-353-3950.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Poverty and the Elderly

Today is the day we blog about poverty, a world wide issue, even more scary in the current economic climate. In my retiree job as part time director of a small NYC advocacy organization, the New York Citizens’ Committee on Aging, Inc., we took on the issue of elder poverty when we discovered an alarming statistic. According to the data from the U.S. Census Bureau, "2005 American Community Survey", over 20% of New York City’s older adults were poor! And this in a city with such a high cost of living. We have made elder poverty our project for over a year, holding a May 2007 forum with seniors and key leaders in aging services, and following up with our colleagues to find ways to address this issue.

Needless to say, over the past year things have gotten a lot worse. Sometimes I feel that even older New Yorkers, like myself, lucky enough to have savings and a pension in addition to Social Security and Medicare, are just a step away from “poverty”, if that means being unable to afford housing, food and health care. So imagine how much harder the struggle is for our older neighbors on fixed incomes and such limited funds. What follows is an excerpt from our report, Under the Radar: Poverty Among Older Adults in New York City (May 2007 New York Citizens’ Committee on Aging, Inc.)

Poverty is more than a lack of financial resources; it is a serious threat to health and well-being, dignity, and the ability to participate fully in our society.(Economic and Social Council of the United Nations Commission on Population and Development. “Monitoring of population programmes, focusing on the changing age structures of populations and their implications for development, Report of the Secretary-General,” December 28, 2006.)

Unfortunately, in recent years the problem of poverty amongst older adults has become increasingly invisible. Many people believe that the vast majority of seniors are affluent – or at least receiving adequate assistance. The major cause behind this misconception is the success of programs such as Medicare and Social Security, which have greatly alleviated economic insecurity among older adults. In fact, poverty among Americans age 65 and older has fallen from one-in-three persons in 1960 to one-in-ten today. (Whitman, D. & Purcell, P. (2006). Topics in aging: Income and poverty among older Americans in 2005.)

These successes cannot be denied and our country should be proud of this progress. Work remains, however, for too many seniors have been left behind. While poverty among persons age 65 and older in the United States has decreased, it has actually risen in New York City. (New York City Department for the Aging. “Annual Plan Summary, April 1, 2007 – March 31, 2008, For Older Americans Act and New York State Community Services for the Elderly Program and Expanded In-Home Services for the Elderly Program,” September 2006.)

In 2005, the U.S. Census Bureau set the poverty threshold for
individuals age 65 and older at $9,367. (U.S. Census Bureau. “Poverty Thresholds 2005.”) If a senior’s annual pretax income falls below this amount then he or she is considered “poor.” While updated annually, this threshold is the same throughout the contiguous United States and does not reflect regional differences in cost-of-living. According to this measure, 9.9% of older Americans lived in poverty in 2005, which represents a continued decline of poverty among this age group nationwide. Yet, the poverty rate among older adults living in New York City was twice the national rate: 20.3%. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005 American Community Survey.) This is a significant problem that is not mirrored in all urban areas. In fact, among the twenty most populous cities in the United States, New York is second only to Detroit, Michigan in the percentage of its seniors living in poverty.

New York City is home to over 943,000 people who are age 65 or older. Approximately 191,653 of these seniors live in poverty, but what is known about them? According to the U.S. Census: 68.3 percent of these seniors are female; 37.3 percent are male. 47.9 percent are age 65 to 74; 52.1 percent are age 75 and older. 59.8 percent experience one or more physical, mental or emotional disabilities.

Poverty is most prevalent among racial and ethnic minorities …. The poverty rate among the City’s Hispanic elderly population is three times the national average, while the rates for Black and Asian elderly are more than double that rate.

Disability can be either a cause or consequence of poverty. In New York City, the percentage of seniors who are both poor and disabled is over twice the national rate: 5.5% versus 12.1%

In basic terms, poverty results from the discrepancy between income and expenses. A person is “poor” when his or her income is woefully inadequate to cover expenses that meet basic needs, such as food, housing and transportation. In New York City these expenses are immense. In fact, New York City is the most expensive city in which to live in all of North America ( “World’s Most Expensive Cities,” June 22, 2005.)
Since this is such an important topic, to be continued.....

Friday, October 10, 2008

Remembering Ramon

One week ago, my brother-in-law Ramon died. He was one of the first of my husband’s relatives that I met – so many, many years ago. And he won me over immediately with his warm smile and sparkling personality. He was a “people” person, always welcoming, always ready with a joke.

At his funeral, his many friends and family testified to a life well lived and a man well loved. I will miss him but his memory will forever make my heart happy.

My husband and daughters wrote much better tributes to Ramon. Click on to my daughter’s blog on the sidebar for her tribute. My daughter Lisa’s tribute follows.


October 7, 2008

Pío, pío, pío my Tío Ramón sang, telling me the story of myself as a two-year old chasing chickens in Rincón by Agapito’s house. He danced and bent his knees becoming me for a moment, the room filling with squawking chickens and hot feathers and dust. His smile filled the room with light. His whole face beamed with joy, kind of like a Santa who had grown up on a tropical island. His cheeks stood out prominently and his nostrils flared above his thick mustache. His eyes moved fast drinking up your whole face under thick eyebrow awnings. I couldn’t help but laugh and remember with him even though it was only the faintest memory for me. I lived it again and again through his storytelling.

My Tío was always handsomely dressed. Quite dapper, GQ I would later say since taking a picture of him in a garden conservatory. He stood facing me, hands in pockets, long coat hanging off of his shoulders. He looked taller than he was in that coat. Muy guapo, Tío! He looked so strong, so powerful, so bigger than life to me. His words were quick and could bite if you weren’t ready, but always love flowed from him to me. He always greeted me with, “Como está?” but it always sounded like Co-mess-TAH to my ears, staccato and fast. I always answered, “Muy bien. Y usted?” and he would laugh and answer, “Bien. Mi que linda, Lisa.” My attempts at speaking Spanish were such a happy time for him.

When I got married, Tío was there watching out for me. My husband, Wes, told me later that my uncle came over to him and said, “Lisa is a very special girl. You take care of her.” Then he held up his index and middle fingers pointing to Wes’ eyes and raised one eyebrow as he said really slowly, “Marriage is for-EVER.” Tío smiled and walked away. Wes wasn’t sure who Ramón was, but he said he felt like he had just gotten a Puerto Rican hex by a little old man in my family. I laughed. We just celebrated eight years, Tío, so I guess your “PR hex” is working for us.

My last memory of you was the day before you died. I was in yoga class thinking of you. I had been looking at your picture for the past week and praying that you would be okay. We did a little prayer asking God to give us what we need because everything else was irrelevant. And when I laid down to rest at the end of class, I saw you surrounded by a bright white light. You were looking up a little to your right and had a little smile flickering under your mustache. Your eyes were black gems, like a charcoal drawing on a cloud. You were bigger than life and I sent all my thoughts and prayers and calm to you. You looked so happy and handsome, Tío.

Give Titi Carmen and Ramon Jr. a big hug for me. I miss you very much. Te amo mucho, Tío. Vaya con Díos! Make Him laugh too.