A Lifeline for 106-year-old West Sider

Written by Mary Newman on . Posted in News West Side Spirit.


Zena Foster, herself almost an octogenarian, has been a home health aide for two decades

As a 79-year-old caregiver, Zena Foster knows how to relate to her elderly clients. She has been caring for Shirley Herskowitz, a 106-year-old resident of the Upper West Side, for the past five years. Before meeting Zena, Herskowitz says that she never felt truly cared for, since many other aides couldn’t relate to her at all. Foster uses creative ways to keep her mind active, and fill her days with joy.

“You trust someone who has a lot of life experience,” Foster explained. She finds common ground with Herskowitz to keep her mind active by referencing their shared interest of music, or discussing world events that have happened in their lifetimes. Foster also works as professional gospel singer, often singing to Herskowitz as she prepares meals.

Foster has been working with her agency, Partners in Care, for over two decades. The company, which provides in-home care for 12,000 senior New Yorkers, is an affiliate of the not-for-profit Visiting Nurse Service of New York and has been operating for over 30 years. They employ more than 550 home health aides who are 65 and older, like Foster.

In addition to her more traditional responsibilities, Foster does things like write out the day of the week in big black marker so Herskowitz remains aware of her surroundings. They also take walks to the Jewish Association Serving the Aging (JASA) to get lunch, discuss current events, and even dance together to increase her mobility and strength. While Herskowitz displays remarkable strength for her age, her family says what keeps her going is the friendship she has formed with Foster.

“The fact is, I don’t think my mother would be alive if Zena wasn’t helping her,” Herskowitz’s daughter Eleanor said. “She has all sorts of methods that she uses to make sure my mother stays as smart and able as she possibly can. It’s hard for me to think about how my mother would have aged if she didn’t have Zena.”

Working as a home health aide for over 20 years, Foster has seen how difficult it can be for seniors living in New York. When she started working with Herskowitz, one of her weekly routines was to bring her to get her nails done at a local salon. She quickly noticed that they were taking advantage of Herskowitz’s poor sight, overcharging her for the services they were providing.

Foster went to beauty school, and worked as a beauty consultant for the first 30 years of her career, so she knew that the $85 was an unfair price for a manicure. Foster now gives Herskowitz a weekly manicure, allowing Shirley to save that money for groceries and living expenses.

A mother of four children, Foster has always considered herself to have good maternal instinct. “Don’t let my small size fool you, God gave me a lot of energy,” she said. “I have always been able to talk with my kids, it’s important. I do the same with my patients.”

Herskowitz has lived in her apartment for the past 42 years, and is thankful that Foster helps her remain there.

“I love her,” said Herskowitz. “She does everything for me.”

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