Irene Zola wants the world to know about people like Dolores Saborido.
In her nineties, Saborido had outlived nearly all of her relatives. Her hired caregiver did not speak enough English, Zola says, and Saborido was socially isolated. Eventually, Saborido phoned Zola’s organization, Lifeforce in Later Years (LiLY), which matched her with several volunteers who visited daily to keep her company.
Zola still keeps a thank-you voicemail from Saborido, who passed away last year, on her cellphone. It’s a testament to the impact of the human connections she strives to foster. A college writing instructor and longtime Morningside Heights resident, Zola, 66, founded LiLY in 2009 to do something “life-affirming” after her mother passed away.
“My eyes were open to the dire challenges old people face,” she said. Dissatisfied with the care her mother had received in a nursing home, Zola says she decided to make other people happy.
More than 85 volunteers have since joined LiLy’s Morningside Village program, which supports seniors aging in their own homes. The program organizes home visits to more than 70 seniors in the area bounded by West 106th and 118th streets, Riverside Drive and Morningside Drive/Columbus Avenue. Volunteers help connect elders with health care and social services, assist with everyday tasks like shopping and provide one-on-one social attention. Most of the seniors are in their eighties and nineties. All services are free.
These Upper West Side seniors are not the only ones who benefit. Some Morningside Village volunteers are new to the neighborhood and looking to make friends. Others hope to find a grandparent figure for their own children. Whatever motivates them to get involved, volunteers build close relationships with one other and the seniors they visit.
“I would spend two hours with her, and it was like being with a girlfriend,” LiLY’s director of recruitment Erin Broad said of Saborido.
As if leading an entirely volunteer-run organization and teaching part-time at John Jay College weren’t enough to keep her busy, this year Zola took on a new project to raise awareness of seniors. Her group approached Mayor Bloomberg’s office, resulting in his proclamation of New York’s first Love an Elder Day on Oct. 1. Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell also presented LiLY with a New York State Assembly proclamation recognizing the event, which fell on the same day as the UN’s International Day of Older Persons. The Love an Elder Day celebrations included an advertising campaign in Morningside Heights with posters, street art and greeting cards to combat what Zola calls the “invisibility of seniors” in the media and in the family.
Ten million seniors are living alone in the U.S., she said, and may go through a personal crisis when their voices are weakest. “Sometimes they can hardly be heard, literally,” Zola said. She hopes to expand LiLY’s awareness campaign across New York City and eventually, the nation. Zola says she believes greater visibility of seniors will inspire others to act, translating into more compassion and care for older Americans.
Assembly Member O’Donnell, who nominated Zola for the Westy Community Builder award, praised her initiative in addressing elder isolation. “She saw that need, decided to step into the void, and produced a result, which is extraordinary,” he said.
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