“I was in a dark tunnel.”

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How the Henry Street Settlement works to lift seniors from isolation and depression


  • Posters help raise awareness among seniors about free depression screenings. Photo: Brian Demo

  • People over 60 who live in the Vladek Houses on the Lower East Side can join the Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) created for the public housing development. Photo: Brian Demo

  • Basilisa Riggio said Henry Street Settlement programs helped her manage her anxiety and depression. Photo: Brian Demo

Basilisa Riggio, 76, came to the United States from Puerto Rico when she was two. She was surrounded by people for most of her life. She helped raise two children and is now a grandmother of three. She earned a master’s degree from Adelphi University and taught early education at Public School 42 in the Bronx.

But her life changed. She and her husband divorced, the children began their adult lives, and she retired as a full-time teacher. She felt lonely. And that loneliness led to anxiety; and her anxiety deepened into depression. “I was in a dark tunnel,” she said.

Today, she credits programs run by the Henry Street Settlement for teaching her how to manage her anxiety and depression, while giving her a sense of community. “The social work helped me. The exercises helped me. We have a lot of workshops. All those workshops helped.”

Henry Street’s array of senior health offerings include NORC/Vladeck, a partnership with the NYC Housing Authority (NORC stands for Naturally Occurring Retirement Community); the Henry Street Senior Center; the Senior Companion program; the Center for Active and Successful Aging (CASA); and Health Seniors Select Meals on Wheels. In addition to on-site counseling, support and health services, Henry Street social workers visit seniors, who often remain at home for physical or mental health reasons.

To qualify for NORC/Vladeck, seniors must be at least 60 and live in the Vladeck Houses – public housing and independent apartment living, which Betsy Smith, director of the program, urges hesitant elderly people to not mistake for nursing homes, assisted retirement communities, and similar settings. Among the services available to NORC residents are a blood pressure clinic and home visits by the program’s registered nurse.

NORC/Vladeck and the senior center both offer mental health screenings and referrals to CASA, a satellite mental health clinic. The senior center, for instance, uses the PHQ-9 Scale – “one of the most validated tools in mental health,” which can be used to “assist clinicians with diagnosing depression and monitoring treatment response,” according to the AIMS Center at the University of Washington.

The center also works to create an atmosphere where seniors can learn about mental health and make friends through games and activities. It hosts presentations on aging and depression, as well as music, dancing, and art classes. Riggio loves to dance. She took tap and ballet classes as a kid, and dreamed of performing on Broadway. She found solace in the senior center classes. “We did belly dancing,” she said, “and Zumba.”

Like any institution that seeks to address depression, Henry Street faces ongoing challenges. Getting seniors to overcome the stigma attached to the condition and even acknowledge that they are depressed is an issue, Smith said. Getting them into treatment, and getting them to accept the treatment, is another.

To compound matters, some seniors suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said Cheryl Kamen, director of the senior center. “It could be from the Korean War, Vietnam. It could be 9/11.”

Fidelia Gloria Dorival – an 88-year-old woman originally from Barbados – said she has suffered from PTSD since the World Trade Center attacks, which happened about two miles from her home. “I’m screaming and I don’t know what to do,” she recalled. She called the Henry Street Senior Center her “second home.” Yet, she also said. “In the silence, I’m depressed. I stay in bed; they beg me to get out.”

Culture plays a significant role, Kamen said. Hispanic seniors, for example, who make up 60 percent of the NORC/Vladeck program, may view depression as God’s punishment. And Chinese seniors, 35 percent of participants, are known by several Henry Street staff to be deeply hesitant to speak about mental health troubles, let alone depression, out of fear of bringing shame upon themselves and their families.

Henry Street social worker Agnes Leong, a citizen of the U.S. and Macau who speaks Chinese, works carefully to make incremental progress with her clients. “Especially the older generation,” she said. “They think depression means they’re crazy. They won’t even say the word ‘depression.’ They just say, ‘I’m not happy.’” But Leong finds hard-earned progress fulfilling. “I love to see their smile after they complete something.”

With counseling sessions from CASA and art classes at the senior center, Mrs. W., a 74-year-old Hispanic woman who prefers to remain anonymous, found a way to deal with her depression. She smiled when she talked about her abstract drawings – done in colored pencils.

She also said she feels isolated and gets distracted at home at night. Her husband, she said, rarely goes out and won’t discuss what his isolation means, or reach out for treatment. “If he’s gotta get help, he don’t wanna get help,” she said. Though more graceful in Spanish, she addressed Smith and her interpreter for the interview, case manager Cindy Campoverde, in English. “You understand my problems,” she said.

The Henry Street staff work to normalize discussions of mental illness. They print and display posters showing photos of seniors who have been screened for depression. They also display posters (from the International Foundation for Research and Education on Depression) of famous people, living and dead, who have dealt with depression. Among them are Janet Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.

Social workers and other staff are taught to be aware and persistent in maintaining contact with their clients. For example, they call if they have not heard nor seen particular seniors in a while. If the calls fail, they visit. Even the Meals on Wheels delivery people let their supervisors know of red flags, such as excessive sluggishness or declines in home upkeep, according to their director, Cindy Singh.

Henry Street also offers the Senior Companion program, which trains and deploys healthy and active elderly to meet with homebound or isolated seniors. The program director, Rachael Hughes, said her senior volunteers – the companions – fill a multitude of roles: from home visits to escorts for doctor appointments or community activities. Some relationships blossom into friendships. “A senior may have the same client for 10 to 15 years,” she said. And they’re never too old or too young to offer a hand. “Our oldest senior companion is 91, and our youngest is 55.”

Wearing a black hoodie and jeans, Lillian Bermudez, who will turn 65 in July, described a scenario similar to Riggio’s. “I found myself waking up and saying, ‘Shit. Now what?’” Though she claims she is more introverted than Riggio and Dorival, she mentioned that she loves to go out dancing.

Earlier this month, the senior center hosted its Valentine’s Day party. Under decorations and dimmed lights, seniors partied with energy that could rival a college dance. A mix of pop – a dance remix of Camila Cabello’s “Havana” and a “Blurred Lines” cover – and Latin music pumped through the center. Bermudez traded her hoodie and jeans for a red outfit. She applied red lipstick before motioning toward the dance floor to join Riggio, who was dancing with an elderly gentleman. Dorival was all in red as well, holding her walker and a heart-shaped balloon. And Mrs. W. was there, with a red ornament in her hair, smiling wide.

“Don’t stay home. Get out there,” said Riggio.


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