Senior Page: Service Is The Goal Of New Harwich COA Leadership

By: Jan Sidebotham

Judi Wilson and Marie Carlson of the Harwich Council On Aging. JAN SIDEBOTHAM PHOTO

HARWICH – As people grow older, connecting with others is essential. Judi Wilson, the new director of the Harwich Council on Aging, and her executive administrative assistant, Marie Carlson, have always worked in fields that involved connecting with others. They have been motivated by the desire to help other people.

Said Wilson, most recently director of the council on aging in Orleans, “I love the work. That’s why I do it. We’re trying to enhance the lives of older people.”

Carlson, who has been a nurse and a teacher, said, “My quote is ‘Giving is getting.’ That’s part of this job.”

Their affability and warmth will make it easy for the people they serve to feel connected. During a recent interview, their interaction was light-hearted and respectful. Having been occupied with adjusting to a new workplace — Carlson arrived in June, Wilson in September — they were nevertheless relaxed and attentive, as if they had all the time in the world and the interview was exactly what they wanted to do at the moment.

One of Wilson’s goals is to get the word out about the many services available to seniors. For example, SHINE (Serving Health Insurance Needs of Everyone on Medicare) helps seniors manage their health care. Wilson considers SHINE one of the most important programs on the Cape. SHINE employs a paid coordinator and many volunteers who go through training and test-taking before they are able to counsel individuals and help them navigate the confusing world of health insurance.

There are people fortunate to have their own support system, but there are many who do not have family nearby. The COA is there for them and can help in many different ways. “People don’t know what’s available,” said Wilson. “We need to be better marketers.”

Looking ahead and seeing that people will “live longer and frailer,” Wilson listed the top three needs for the elderly population: transportation, social interaction to combat isolation, and health and wellness.

The COA currently addresses these issues through various services. It provides a van that picks up seniors at their homes and brings them to the Harwich Community Center for various activities as well as taking them to the market and on shopping excursions. The center offers opportunities for socializing, like daily lunches, a walking club, and a night supper club. Each bi-monthly newsletter details a varying crop of events. During July and August there were men’s breakfasts, women’s breakfasts, cribbage, yoga, men’s book club, exercise classes and recreational sports. The COA addresses health issues by offering various clinics, Reiki treatments, nutrition and diet support.

Wilson was enthusiastic about the quality and size of the facility and mentioned that there always seems to be a room available if a group needs one. Noting that the COA already had a good working relationship with other town departments, she said, “The bridges are here, and the communication seems great. I anticipated having to reach out, but people have reached out to me.”

As Wilson considered the future, one of her primary goals is to “evaluate and look at what we do.” Her “filter,” as she called it, is the question, “What is in the best interest of the aging population?”. She anticipates the need for transportation will only increase. Housing, too, will be important. “I’ve never met a senior whose goal wasn’t to live in their own home as long as possible,” she said, adding that the need for affordable housing on the Cape intertwines with the needs of the elderly. Assisted living centers are beyond many seniors’ means. For many on fixed incomes, maintaining a home is a challenge. Housing is also scarce for the younger people who work in hospitals, at doctors’ offices, as home health care workers, and as van drivers. “It’s all linked,” Wilson said.

Carlson nodded and volunteered that she has visited just about every aging care facility on the Cape as she cares for her elderly mother. All the facilities depend on workers who come with a J1 or H2B visa, and there is concern that the visa programs are in jeopardy.

The word “serve” or “service” came up often with Wilson and Carlson. When asked how she sees her role, Carlson responded, “I serve the director. I want to do the best job I can to facilitate her goals. Our job is to serve the people with the tools we have and to obtain more tools.”

Wilson said about her work, “It matters. It makes a difference. Every day someone will come up with an issue. Small things make a difference.”

Carlson looked thoughtful and added, “But it’s not small to them.”