By Annie Rubinson–
“Engagement” is one of the key components of brain health for seniors, and the COVID-19 pandemic has left many of them feeling more isolated than ever. In response, Ellen Woods, Senior Program Manager at Phelps Hospital Northwell, has single-handedly created a series of educational and supportive vitality programs for senior citizens across Westchester County and beyond.
For ten years, long before COVID-19 drove the country into lockdown, Woods has been dedicating herself to building an active community of local senior citizens, born out of her observation that Westchester’s population was aging. “We have a growing senior population, above the national average, and we needed to address their healthcare needs,” Woods said.
One of the primary ways in which Woods did this was by launching a program called “The Breakfast Club,” where seniors were invited to the hospital once a month for a hot breakfast, supplemented by Medicare updates, some strength and balance exercise, and a guest speaker able to to inform but also foster a support system among the participants. “They love education,” Woods said. “They ask really deep questions, so there’s always really good discussion. That social development is really important.”
Out of this program came several focus groups, including support groups and educational programs on Osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease, topics requested in a survey of participants. More recently, Woods developed a program aimed at seniors who act as caregivers for their spouses or other family members. To help generate even more ideas and receive feedback on how to tailor the hospital’s programs to the seniors’ needs, Woods eventually selected a handful of seniors to serve on an advisory board.
Another major component of Woods’ work is acting as a liaison of information—providing referrals, answering questions, or relaying updates about senior healthcare topics in her bimonthly newsletter. “They know me so well from the programs that they feel they can rely on me as a trusted source,” she said.
Lynda Nickelsen, a frequent participant in Phelps’ vitality programming since the first Breakfast Club meeting 10 years ago, shared the positive impact of Woods on her life. “I always wondered if I would make friends after I retired, and I have,” she said. “I’ve learned so much from her – we all have.” She added that attending Woods’ programs has helped her feel more comfortable and familiar with Phelps Hospital and their staff, which she expects will prove useful should she ever require medical attention from them in the future.
The spread of COVID-19 heightened anxiety levels across the nation, and Westchester’s seniors, who have a higher risk of contracting it, were no exception. “A lot of them were fearful and said they hadn’t been out in months,” Woods recalls. “They needed to know what resources were out there, like how they could get food and still exercise.” In addition to addressing these concerns in her newsletters, Woods successfully virtualized much of the hospital’s community programming in the hopes of creating a sense of togetherness despite social distancing regulations.
Along with virtual Breakfast Club meetings, Woods has begun to moderate “Monday Morning Chats” over Zoom, in which seniors have the opportunity to call in and discuss a wide range of pre-selected topics, from their favorite musicians and television shows to the impact of news media on communities during times of unrest. A “phone tree” has also been set up as a line of communication and engagement with the hospital for seniors who are less technologically savvy, as well as various exercise routines and memory games that help with cognition.
Nickelsen expressed her gratitude for the online continuation of Phelps’ vitality programs in the face of COVID-19. “I know people who’ve died [from COVID-19],” she admits, “and that frightens me. Ellen has made a place for us to be able to say that to a group that’s non-threatening and non-judgmental, and it alleviates so much of that loneliness and anxiety,” she said.
Woods admits that she enjoys hearing these positive responses to her programs. “They are so appreciative that someone is out there trying to help them,” she said. “People have said that this is the only lifeline they have, and that really drives me forward. I get back from them as much as I give out.” Woods hopes to see even more local seniors signing up for newsletters and participating in future programs, which they can do by contacting the Phelps Hospital Senior Vitality Program. Call (914) 366-1150 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about Phelps’ senior services, visit phelps.northwell.edu.
Nickelsen concluded, “If you don’t know Ellen Woods, you should go and meet her because one day you will need her help. I am blessed to have her in my life.”