By Maria Rocha-Buschel
For many people living and working in Manhattan, the direct effects of Hurricane Sandy ended when the electricity came back and subway service was restored. But like local businesses and institutions that undertook the painstaking work of rebuilding, still an ongoing process almost two and a half years later, residents who live in areas that flooded are also still recovering. A new program from the Department for the Aging available at the Stein Senior Center on East 23rd Street is trying to help ease the emotional effects of the disaster, specifically catering to seniors.
The $1.7 million in funding for SMART-MH (Sandy Mobilization, Assessment, Referral and Treatment for Mental Health) was awarded from FEMA to the Aging in New York Fund by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office through the Superstorm Sandy Social Services Block Grant in 2013.
The Department for the Aging and the Department of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College are working together to execute the program, which started at the Stein Center in February and is exclusively available for New Yorkers age 60 and older. Stein Center Executive Director Jane Barry said that the free program will be available as long as there are seniors who meet the criteria, and noted that a number of people have been helped already.
“A lot of people in this area were affected by Hurricane Sandy,” she said, adding that seniors are already affected by a number of mental health issues, like financial concerns, food insecurity and the loss of friends or family. Regardless of the amount of interest, though, the program is still limited to the grant money originally provided, which ends on September 30 of this year unless there is an extension.
Paula Bertone is the counselor available at the Stein Center. Bertone works exclusively with the program and was hired thanks to the grant, so when she isn’t at the Stein Center, she is at other centers throughout the city. Barry noted that Bertone is bilingual and can offer help in both English and Spanish.
Her office hours are on Mondays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Tuesdays from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Seniors can reach her at (914) 584-0418 to make an appointment so they don’t have to worry about waiting until she’s free, but she said that they are also always welcome to just walk in.
Dr. JoAnne Sirey, head of the program and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, said that older adults might not necessarily seek out mental health services and might not see themselves as victims of the storm, but she is hoping to reach out to seniors who were affected to see how they are handling the trauma, even though it was already two years ago.
“Even though it’s not the acute situation right at this moment, we’re wondering about aging adults post-Sandy,” she said. “You don’t see photos of houses ripped apart in this area but because of the flooding and a large concentration of older adults around here, it’s very clear that older adults were very deeply impacted.”
She added that the definition of “impact” in the context of the program can actually be somewhat broad and that even if older adults feel like they didn’t experience a trauma, there may be long-term effects from a variety of circumstances they experienced during the storm.
“Did they have to leave their apartment or have difficulty getting food and water? Did relatives have a hard time getting to them, or did they have a hard time refilling medication? It’s very geographically oriented,” she said. “If you have COPD and need an inhaler but then get hit by Sandy and can’t get the refill, that’s a pretty strong impact.”
Other long term effects, she said, could be a result of the 24-hour news cycle.
“When the media starts focusing on named storms, seniors have a tendency to worry,” she said. “And now we have this whole culture about watching the storm and following the storm, but for some people it’s really quite scary. It’s important to keep in mind that these concerns still exist.”
Dr. Sirey said that in addition to the program at the Stein Center, counselors are available at other senior centers throughout the city in all five boroughs. She noted that the project is looking to expand and work with a variety of community organizations, agencies, and/or faith-based organizations interesting in hosting them.
“We partner with communities because they can vouch for the program and they can broker the relationship with the older adults who might be a little reluctant if we just walked up,” she said. “And so far, no agency has turned us down. They’ve all been very welcoming, which is great.”