Even when he’s running around the state, presenting with hospitals and health care professionals, New York state Commissioner of Health Dr. Howard Zucker is coming to terms with what it means to get older. “I’m thinking about my mom in her 80’s and my dad in his 90’s. She takes care of him. Even before I came up here, I checked my phone to make sure everything was okay before I spend an hour without being able to check my phone.”
Zucker was introducing the topic at an Oct. 4 presentation at South Nassau Communities Hospital entitled “Aging in Place.” The talk, which turned into more of a dialog after Zucker opened the floor to questions, centered around issues that arise when elderly people whose health is in decline, live at home.
“We don’t ever really think about making a home safe for seniors like we do for babies, with the outlet covers and all that. But things like shag carpeting are really dangerous if they trip and fall on it,” Zucker said. Additionally, a representative from Stepping On, an organization that aims to teach seniors how to avoid slips and falls, mentioned that her program offered a home inspection service to help caretakers reduce the risk to loved one.
Zucker said the problem was that many people who go into caretaking jobs see them as temporary and transitional. “We have to make it so that it’s a whole career,” he said, adding “and we have to start with people who are in school, and in some ways, high school, for them to realize that there’s an opportunity to help people, and to build a career around it.
Among the other issues related to aging, Zucker discussed social isolation as being critical, noting that many times, seniors visit the doctor because it offers the opportunity to interact with another person. He said that finding ways to enable seniors to connect with people, without taking on the physical risks and logistical challenges of getting to the doctor, is paramount.
To this end, Zucker spoke of the positive effects seniors and young people can have on each other, and reminisced about being a kid, listening to his grandfather’s stories about D-Day. Generational exchange programs, he said, could give seniors a sense of purpose and a reason to wake up in the morning. To illustrate his point, he read the poem “The Little Boy and the Old Man” by Shel Silverstein about how children and seniors face many of the same challenges.
“There’s a good chance that a great idea in aging will come from right here in New York, and probably from someone who is relatively young,” Zucker said, noting that innovative solutions to aging can arise out of intergenerational exchanges. Through such an encounter a young professional could realize, “You shouldn’t have to deal with this, I’ll bet that I as an engineer could solve this problem.”