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, and 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. “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 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 U.S., 35 percent of women age 65 and older fall into this category. For women 75 and above, the number is even higher: 46 percent.
Once these women might have relied on nearby family, neighbors or churches for support. But today, families are dispersed, neighbors are often strangers and churches reach fewer people than in the past.
For more on caregiving, visit AARP's Care Guides.
The Caring Collaborative has three core elements: an information exchange, which members use to share information about medical conditions and medical 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, many members are retired professionals who want to make new friends and explore activities after leaving the workforce. They come to the Caring Collaborative through its parent organization, the Transition Network, a national organization for women 50 and older undergoing changes in later life.
Barbara Alpern, 72, current chair of New York’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 said she 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 take 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 told me in a phone conversation.
Since getting involved with the Caring Collaborative, Goodhart has formed a neighborhood group in her area. (There are 16 in New York and two under development.) Now, she describes herself as “the happiest I’ve ever been” because of a satisfying sense of purpose and the relationships she’s developed. “I need to feel needed,” she said.