The Silver Program: Ensuring Lifetime Membership

Posted on March 7, 2014 by Jonathan Brachman, by Norman Feldman, by Susan Lieblich, by Peter Maraia

Libby W., one of our Silver members

Libby W., one of our Silver members

Last week, a letter about the new Silver Program went to 400 members. “It’s about time,” said one of those members as she read it. Silver is a word the Japanese use for senior citizen.  If you didn’t receive a letter, you haven’t reached your sixtieth birthday yet.

Along with the letter was a survey asking what older members need help with.  Those members who answered the survey said that they need help with jobs, food, housing, medical care, home attendants, getting a reach-out visit, finding something to do, and taking a trip to High Point Farm.

The fact that thirty percent of Fountain House’s active members are over 60 is, in the words of Michael Friedman, former director of the Geriatric Mental Health Alliance of New York (GMHANY), “an astounding, almost publishable statistic.” On average, people with mental illness die ten to twenty years younger than the general population.  We proudly say that membership in Fountain House is lifetime, yet as Michael Friedman also asked, “Is it really lifetime membership if it ends the minute you can’t get to the clubhouse?”

What does having so many older members mean for Fountain House?  Some of us Silver members come into the clubhouse every day; others find the atmosphere too hectic and stay away.  Some members are confined to nursing homes or their apartment.

The current director of GMHANY, Kim Williams, suggested a conference call as a way to keep in touch.  We have been holding such calls since March 2013, and they have proven to be a great way to connect people members across New York City and even as far away as Boston!

Susan Lieblich, Unit Leader of the Education Unit, began working at Fountain House in 1980. She says, “I have had the privilege of knowing many members and staff over the years.  Many have been precious jewels in my life.  In a sense, we have been aging together. I have come to recognize that - as we get older - new needs, situations, and solutions come into play. Resources are limited and not obvious to the overall Fountain House community. Isolation is a problem as your mobility becomes limited." 

In response to our over-60 crowd we have developed a small working group of members and staff dedicated to developing solutions to the challenges of being older. This is going to become an increasingly important project since Fountain House itself is 66 years old, and many of us are getting on in years. Staying connected, caring about each other, referring people in need of good quality programs and residential settings are what we are about and must continue to be about.

What has Fountain House done to connect with Silver members?  Susan’s unit, the Education Unit, has made reach-out visits to members in nursing homes a unit activity. The next logical step is to extend this program to more nursing homes and homebound members.

We’ve also helped one member in a local nursing home arrange two visits to Fountain House. We hope to bring other members back to the clubhouse and their old units.

Peter M., a member of Fountain House since 1981, tells of his experience when he was treated for cancer and what the Fountain House community means: “Reaching out to senior members shows people care for them. When I was in the hospital and I received visits from members it made me feel so good. This applies to senior members.  They don’t want to be forgotten. Senior members in nursing homes mostly stay in the facility, which leads to loneliness and despair. Most don’t have family to visit them. They want more mobility.  When a senior member receives a visit from Fountain House, they light up. They see members from the good old days.

“Also on the group telephone call to senior members, they are elated.  Hearing from members young and old is deeply appreciated and exciting. One senior member received a pass from his nursing facility. He was happy to see the old members—I saw the twinkle in his eyes. I call him Brook. I said ’Brook! You didn’t lose your macho.’ Don’t forget the senior members. These senior members helped build the foundation of what Fountain House is today.”

Besides reach-out and in-house visits, the Silver Program is making phone calls as often as possible to members who can’t get to 47th Street, and we plan to distribute a list of their phone numbers to the units and to other members in nursing homes.

We hope to develop an aging-in-place program for the older members who have their own apartments. Aging-in-place is a term used to describe programs that provide assistance so people can stay at home. It is often cheaper to provide a home care attendant and a visiting nurse than to move someone to a nursing home.

The Silver Program has many plans for the future. The group is planning to hold a monthly coffeehouse at 441, Fountain House’s senior residence, for Silver members. We will produce a section in the Fountain House Weekly newspaper with news about older members and a monthly Silver Newsletter. We want to plant a garden; gardening is an activity people young and old enjoy.

At some point we may ask our Development department to try to secure funding for things such as salaries for one or two staff members, a van for in reach and outreach visits, an assisted living center, a petty cash fund for outreach cab, bus, and subway fare and phones for members who can’t afford them.

Jonathan Brachman, Norman Feldman, Susan Lieblich, and Peter Maraia
Silver Project, Fountain House

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