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Irene Zola Fights for Rights of the Elderly

Founder of grassroots volunteer group works to help the elderly live out their final years in dignity at home

On a recent Saturday morning in Manhattan's Morningside Heights neighborhood, Irene Zola - tall with a long mane of silver hair - stands on a busy Broadway sidewalk.

She's handing out fliers to passersby, inviting them to consider volunteering with Morningside Village, a small group she started in 2009 to help sustain the very old in their own homes. Irene Zola passes out fliers, hoping to interest neighborhood residents in becoming Morningside Village volunteers.

Irene Zola passes out fliers, hoping to interest neighborhood residents in becoming Morningside Village volunteers.

Doing her part

Zola says she has always been dedicated to doing her part to make the world a better place.

As a young woman in the 1960s, she marched to end racial segregation in the South, and to stop America's military involvement in Vietnam.

Today, she's focused on changing the way American society perceives and treats the elderly, whom she says are "literally invisible" in American culture. If they are portrayed at all, she says, they are mostly in pharmaceutical ads on the beach having fun.

"So we don't see people with twisted spines and drool coming out of their mouths and noses on Broadway. They're hidden in the nursing homes and they're not in the family home, as they are in other countries, and as they have been traditionally until modern times."

Elderly rights

Zola became aware of the indignities the elderly face just a few years ago.

Her mother, who was then in her 90s, broke several bones and later suffered a massive stroke. The family agreed to put her in a nursing home, assuming she'd be well cared for.

Zola went to check on her mother a few hours after she was admitted to the facility, and was shocked to find her in a dim room, moaning in pain on a bed soaked with urine, having waited hours for someone to help. Zola immediately started making arrangements to have her mother come live with her, but her mother died before that could happen.

"I didn't foresee what was going to happen. And so I decided to do something for all the other people whose daughters and sons don't know better, and for those who don't have daughters and sons." Irene Zola with Dolores Saborido, age 97, a senior who receives help from Morningside Village.

Irene Zola with Dolores Saborido, age 97, a senior who receives help from Morningside Village.

Morningside Village

That is what Zola's Morningside Village is all about.

Its impact is felt by people like 97-year-old Dolores Saborido, who broke several bones in two falls. After a brief stay at a rehabilitation center, she was sent home, bedridden, with only untrained help.

"Things looked black," says Saborido, until a friend introduced her to Irene Zola. "That was a wonderful discovery. And my life has been absolutely turned around since I met Irene. Thank God."

After just one year, the Morningside Village roster has grown to 50 volunteers and 32 seniors. Zola says that because each senior's needs and each volunteer's strengths are unique, matches are carefully made. Irene Zola

Irene Zola

"There are a few seniors who are very confused about their paperwork, [and] about paying their bills, for example. We have volunteers who do that. We have seniors who have had falls in the time we've known them, so we are looking around to assess their homes for safety and to find ways to create fall prevention."

Volunteers also prepare home-cooked foods and, because Morningside Village is a community, the chicken soup flows both ways, says Zola, who has gained about two kilograms just this year from all the meals she has been offered while visiting "her" elders.

"They love to feed us and show their gratitude that way and their appreciation, and we love to eat with them."

Elder-care options

Zola says the need for alternative models of eldercare, such as Morningside Village, is becoming increasingly urgent given currents trends: an aging population, increasing longevity, cuts in health care, decreasing government spending on the elderly, the distance of families from their old relatives and the fact that there are too few physicians specializing in the needs of the elderly.

"There is a tremendous looming crisis on the horizon. In fact, it is already with us and it's only going to get worse," she says."That's why Morningside Village is so important a model of what can be done in a community."

Morningside Village also benefits younger community members.

Volunteers speak about the satisfaction and joy of helping others, and partnerships with local universities and hospitals are strengthening neighborhood networks.

A high-end photography book depicting the elderly in a positive light is in the works, and Morningside Village is creating an interactive website feature that will help communities around the country to create grassroots eldercare organizations of their own.