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Elderly Women In Need of Faith-Based Help


Sanaa Nadim, a Muslim chaplain, said more support for poor elderly women is needed from faith-based organizations.
Photo by Ken Levinson

New York City’s faith-based organizations and social service agencies must join forces to help the swelling numbers of the city’s women living in poverty, a five-member panel of women said during a symposium at Fordham University on Thursday, Nov. 15.

Drawing on both professional and personal experiences, the panelists, which included a rabbi, a Dominican sister and a Muslim chaplain, discussed the plight of elderly indigent urban women as part of “Keeping the Faith,” sponsored by the Fordham Graduate School of Social Service’s Bertram M. Beck Institute on Religion and Poverty. The event was held in the McNally Amphitheatre at the Lincoln Center campus.

“There are so many elderly women who are isolated . . . who have no family support, not even one responsible person in their lives,” said Ursula Joyce, O.P., executive director of Dominican Sisters of Sparkill Senior Housing Ministry. “Churches are really good at prayer, but someone needs to be there when an elderly woman [alone]is discharged from the hospital. Who takes them home? Who helps explain their medication, or cleans out their refrigerators?”

Sanaa Nadim, a Muslim chaplain for the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and a child of older parents, said that women, who outlive men on the average by seven years, are twice as likely to live in poverty by age 85 than are men the same age. The life expectancy of women, she said, has climbed from 50 years in 1902 to 80 years in 2002 and social services have not adjusted to handle the myriad of issues facing this “hidden” demographic. She cited problems of physical and mental abuse by spouses, children and home care aids, and Social Security payments that are inadequate for even the most basic of necessities.

“The baby boomers have failed in their caregiving of their parents,” she said, “Faith-based institutions should be able to connect on a community level, to help [these women]find the

services out there.”

Responding to the panel’s call for comments from the audience, Upper West Side resident Kathleen Sheehy, a retired single woman in her mid-seventies, said everything she had accumulated seemed to be “going downstream.”

“When you have had middle class values all your life, the word ‘poverty’ is frightening,” she said.
Renee Solomon, D.S.W., retired associate professor at the Columbia School of Social work and moderator of the event, said it is “no accident we are talking about a hidden population,” adding that, in a society that ignores older women, poor older women are in double jeopardy.

Other panelists included Rabbi Judith Edelstein, D.Min., BCC, director of the Religious Life Department at Jewish Home and Hospital Lifecare System; Rev. Lisa Hill, director of quality care, West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing; and Betty Letzig, deaconess, United Methodist Church and member of the United Nations NGO Committee on Aging. The symposium was co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Social Service: Ravazzin Center on Aging; the Institute for Women and Girls; and the Office of University Mission and Ministry. Fordham trustee Stephen Bepler (FCRH ’64) and Kim Bepler helped support the event.


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