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City's Senior Citizen Enclaves Are in Danger, Advocates Say

By Amy Zimmer | March 8, 2016 6:34pm
 Sue Deutsch moved to a co-op on the Lower East Side 5 years ago from Wisconsin, lured by children and grandchildren, but also for the amenities for car-less seniors. She stands in the senior center for her community's NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community), amid residents doing chair yoga.
Sue Deutsch moved to a co-op on the Lower East Side 5 years ago from Wisconsin, lured by children and grandchildren, but also for the amenities for car-less seniors. She stands in the senior center for her community's NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community), amid residents doing chair yoga.
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DNAInfo/Amy Zimmer

LOWER EAST SIDE — Sue Deutsch, a widow from Milwaukee, retired from social work, debated whether to move to Santa Cruz or New York City — both places where her children and grandchildren lived.

She ended up on the Lower East Side, in large part, because of the amenities and activities within walking distance for seniors.

“My daughter-in-law told me to visit the senior center. I thought it to be a very friendly place," said Deutsch, 80, who bought a one-bedroom at one of the boxy brick co-ops on Grand Street that is part of the Co-op Village NORC, or Naturally Occurring Retirement Community.

But NORC programs like hers — which are established when an area has a significant population of seniors over 60 — are struggling to meet increased demand as their populations explode even as city and state funding has remained stagnant.

State funding for NORCs has been essentially frozen at $4.2 million for the past 10 years, even as the population of seniors has skyrocketed. 

At Deutsch's Lower East Side co-op, roughly half of NORC’s clients were over the age of 80 in 2014. Today, that population has risen to more than 65 percent, said Bonnie Lumagui, director of the Co-op Village NORC. 

“Our fastest growing demographic is the ‘old’ old adult,” Lumagui said. “People are living longer, but that doesn’t mean they’re living well. The goal now is to keep them out of the hospital and nursing home — and as their needs increase, it puts more strain on the NORCs. Our social workers feel at a loss sometimes.”

There are currently 44 publicly funded NORCs in the five boroughs, according to advocates. Thirty-seven are considered “classic” NORCs, which means they are based around a particular housing complex, like the Lower East Side co-ops.  There are also seven neighborhood NORCs that target areas with low-rise buildings or privately owned homes.

Two of those neighborhood NORCs, Manhattan's Chinatown and Floral Park in Queens, were recently deemed ineligible under the State Office for the Aging rules for NORCs this year — because they have too many seniors, according to a list from the department. The current law does not allow for more than 2,000 seniors in the neighborhood, officials said.

The 2,000-limit was chosen originally to make sure an area’s boundaries for a neighborhood NORC wouldn’t be too large, explained Anita Altman, who worked with Fredda Vladeck to help create NORCs two decades ago. But that cap “has turned out to be problematic,” she said.

When they designed the program, “since we were the first, we had no history or metrics to turn to," Altman added. "The whole thrust is requiring a critical mass.”

The reason the NORC designation is so significant is because it opens the door to those communities to be eligible for state or city funding for supportive services to help seniors, including nurses and social workers who make home visits.

Some advocates are trying to steer more funding towards the communities, including State Rep. Steven Cymbrowitz, of South Brooklyn, who this month introduced legislation to more than double the funding for NORCs from $4.2 million to $10 million.

His legislation would also lower the minimum threshold of those 60 years or older in a community before it could qualify for the state's NORC status — lowering it from at least 50 percent of the population of a building or housing complex to 40 percent.

For the state’s neighborhood NORCs, Cymbrowitz's legislation would lower the threshold from 40 percent seniors to 30 percent, and it would eliminate the current 2,000-senior cap.

Advocates are also trying to push the city to devote more funds to neighborhood NORCs.

Vladeck and Altman said as neighborhoods change, so should the funding designated to the elderly who live there.

“Communities are not these monolithic blocks. They are constantly changing,” said Vladeck, director of the Aging in Place Initiative at United Hospital Fund. “The key is, how do the supports and services keep up with those changes?”

The city currently spends $6.5 million on classic NORCs, and at a City Council hearing this month advocates called on officials to allocate an additional $4 million for neighborhood NORCs.

There are “tremendous opportunities” for new NORCs, especially in the neighborhood model, Altman said.

While many gentrified or gentrifying neighborhoods in Brooklyn, like Williamsburg and Greenpoint, have seen their senior population move out, there are still significant numbers of older adults staying put in southern Brooklyn, Altman noted. There's also potential for NORCs programs in Central Queens, Riverdale and Staten Island — which currently have no such supportive programs.

“The problem is right now there is no city program to provide funding [for neighborhood NORCs], and unless there's an increase at the state level there will be no opportunity for new programs,” Altman said.

Moreover, the level of nursing services at many NORCs substantially decreased three years ago when the Visiting Nurse Service of New York reduced the nursing hours — which are donated — at many NORC programs due to "changes in the home health care financial landscape," according to Rhonda Karp-Soberman, manager of program development at VNS.

Karp-Soberman added that while VNS remained committed to serving the NORCS, the reduced service it performs now can't be guaranteed in the future because the cost of the service remains a financial challenge.

The nurses are critical to helping people stay in their homes, Altman said.

"Nobody wants to go to a nursing home," she added, but many seniors are "lonely and isolated and have nowhere to go. So, this is a real housing issue."