NEW YORK – Like many women aging alone, Eileen Kobrin worried that an accident could compromise her independence. Then, two years ago at age 71, the New Yorker fell while on vacation, breaking her left ankle. Her Caring Collaborative network sprang into action.
One member recommended an ankle surgeon at the nearby Hospital for Special Surgery, who operated successfully. Others brought over a wheelchair, a bath chair and an elevated toilet seat after Kobrin returned to her apartment with instructions to stay off her feet for several months.
Every day, someone would come with lunch or dinner, or just to keep Kobrin company. “It was a tremendous outpouring of support — one of the most wonderful experiences of my life,” she said.
The Caring Collaborative — an innovative program that originated a decade ago in New York City and has since spread to Philadelphia and San Francisco — brings older women together to help one another when short-term illness or disability strikes, addressing an all-too-often unmet need.
People who live alone, like most Caring Collaborative members, frequently worry about finding this kind of assistance. Across the United States, 35 percent of women age 65 and older fall into this category. For women older than 75, the number is 46 percent.
Once, these women might have relied on nearby family, neighbors or churches for support. Today, families are dispersed, neighbors are often strangers, and churches reach fewer people than in the past.
The Caring Collaborative has three core elements: an information exchange, which members use to share information about medical conditions and providers; a service corps of women who volunteer to provide hands-on assistance to other members; and small neighborhood groups that meet monthly to talk about health topics and personal concerns.
In New York City, many members are retired professionals who want to make new friends and explore activities after leaving the workforce.
Members agree in writing not to reveal confidential information about one another, give medical advice or perform medical tasks such as bandaging a wound or giving someone medication. A two-hour orientation is required. Fundraising and an annual $100 membership fee for its parent organization, the Transition Network, covers costs for the program, run almost entirely by volunteers.
Barbara Alpern, 72, current chair of New York City’s Caring Collaborative, joined four years ago after retiring from a demanding 28-year career in employee benefits consulting and becoming ill with a serious infection and complications from diabetes. Unmarried, she lives alone and had focused on work at the expense of friendship.
“I realized I had nobody I could easily count on,” she said.
Within months of signing up, Alpern sent out a request for somebody to pick her up from a colonoscopy and escort her home. The woman who responded invited her for breakfast, and over bacon and eggs they discovered a mutual love for theater. Several get-togethers followed and “I made a friend,” Alpern said.
Naomi Goodhart, 64, who also lives alone, became a member three years ago after stepping down from a longtime position as a corporate executive assistant. “I’ve been a loner my entire life and have found making friends extremely difficult,” she said.
Since getting involved with the Caring Collaborative, Goodhart has formed a new neighborhood group. Now, she describes herself as “the happiest I’ve ever been.”