Answering seniors' call Elderly: Catholic Charities' new help line, backed by a data bank of resources, comes to the aid of older people needing answers to a variety of questions.

January 10, 1998|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Confused by how to best care for old people?

Catholic Charities, responding to seniors' growing pleas for information, has begun a free telephone service to help guide the elderly and their helpers through the thicket of questions about housing, health and money.

Four specialists in aging problems, backed by a data bank of up to 2,500 Maryland resources, staff the information and referral program, Answers for the Aging. There is a demonstrated need: More than half a million elderly people call a state help line each year.

"It's a maze out there," said Scott Jaudon, who has called the service for friends. "People don't know facts or are misguided about nursing homes or assisted living or getting help at home or whatever."

Jaudon is development director of St. Elizabeth Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, 3320 Benson Ave., which is part of the Jenkins Community for the elderly, where the Answers program operates.

Jenkins also is operated by Catholic Charities, which began here in 1923 as a children's agency when 12 Catholic orphanages were grouped.

Catholic Charities plans to observe its 75th birthday at the annual dinner Friday at the Convention Center.

The information line was the idea of Hal Smith, executive director of Catholic Charities, which has served the elderly since the 1960s. He wanted a formal way to answer questions of the elderly and to offer help before questions turn into crises.

The program's director, Celia Stevens, and her three colleagues answer calls, listen, and do research. Their advice is not limited to low-income people.

"We're here to help everyone," Stevens said. "Catholic Charities helps the needy as part of its mission. But you don't have to be needy or Catholic to call us. Growing older affects everyone. It's a way for Charities to give something back to the whole community for all the support it's had over the years."

Since Answers opened Dec. 10, the most frequent callers have been caregivers, usually working people responsible for their parents. Stevens said their questions are often complex and personal.

"They call in crisis," she said. Not all problems are solved.

Caregivers want to know whether a parent's change in behavior signals normal aging or Alzheimer's disease. They want someone to help old people with the shopping, writing checks or light maintenance.

They ask where a mother can live independently or have adult day care and switch to assisted living.

Joining forces

The Answers program exchanges information with the busiest statewide help line for the elderly, Senior Information and Assistance of the Maryland Office on Aging, which has a partnership with 21 local agencies on aging.

Begun in 1982 and directed by Joanne Keiser, the network had more than 500,000 callers in fiscal 1996 and more last year. When people call the state agency, their questions are answered or they are referred to the local services.

There is always room for more problem-solvers, said Keiser.

"We're delighted," she said of the new help line. "Catholic Charities has an outstanding reputation for their sensitivity to the needs of the elderly."

Its Jenkins Community is for elderly people of different income levels and ages in Southwest Baltimore: independent living for low-income people, adult day care, nursing home care, sub-acute care at nearby St. Agnes Hospital and plans for an assisted living center.

Questions about aging don't concern George Zuebert, 94, who wandered by the Answers office the other day. He is a widower and retired firefighter, merchant seaman, factory worker and St. Agnes Hospital maintenance engineer who lives at the DePaul lTC House for independent living at Jenkins.

He had a hip replacement a few years ago and a serious back problem last year. He admires the work of the team but doesn't need its services.

"The doctors can't find a thing wrong with me," he says, puffing a pipe.

How long has he been smoking? "1910."

Drink?

"Stopped Christmas Eve 1943." Too much that night.

Jaudon and Stevens give him hugs when he wanders by. He is familiar in the community for his stories and daily volunteer work in the St. Elizabeth laundry. He spent eight hours with the wash one recent day.

"I feel lucky to have this team," said Stevens. "Each of us has our own way and style and talent in helping."

'We're great listeners'

Stevens, who is earning her master's in pastoral counseling, and Pamela Massie, with a master's in social work, are on duty full-time. Part-time staffers are Jo Fisher, a housing specialist for the elderly with a master's degree in liberal arts, and Dolores Krysiak, an expert in long-term care.

Massie, who is from a family with generations of experience caring for its elderly, said, "We're great listeners."

William H. Shipley Sr. of Solomons found that to be true. He

wanted to help a friend needing care in Calvert County. Massie connected him with the appropriate party.

"She was so helpful," Shipley wrote back to Stevens.

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