In Lowell, Seniors Count

04/29/2008
By From the Lowell Sun

By Michael Lafleur

LOWELL -- Volunteers, researchers and workers at UMass Lowell and the Lowell Senior Center are about to embark on an unprecedented effort to count and catalog the needs of every Lowell resident age 60 or older.

Dubbed the Lowell Seniors Count campaign, the comprehensive, 2 1/2-year endeavor is the result of nearly $100,000 in grants from the state Department of Public Health and the Massachusetts Partnership for Healthy Communities. The goal, said Lynne Brown-Zounes, executive director of the Lowell Senior Center, is to meet every senior citizen living in the Mill City, find out his or her needs and get him or her information about social services.

"The outcome of this survey may change the way we do business in Lowell in census-taking officially begins with a ceremony Thursday at the senior center, located at 276 Broadway St., but Brown-Zounes said the legwork will start in late May, when two-person volunteer teams of investigators branch out across the city to knock on doors in Lowell Housing Authority and other subsidized elderly-housing complexes. After that is done, the teams will head into the neighborhoods.

The key is the volunteer census-takers and stuffers of 15,000 "resource gift bags" -- canvas bags that contain T-shirts, senior-center identification cards and 25 brochures to help seniors "age in place," Brown-Zounes said.

Written in Khmer, Spanish and English, the Mill City's most commonly spoken languages, the information packets include tips on how to qualify for everything from property-tax abatements to fuel and food assistance and subsidized health care.
Brown-Zounes said she now has about 150 volunteers and would like to have at least 100 more.

Among the volunteers is Debbie Donovan of Woburn, a registered nurse who serves as regional director of community marketing for Wingate Healthcare, the parent company of the Wingate at Lowell Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center on Wentworth Avenue.

"I just thought it was really worthwhile to get the word out there to folks who may not be aware of the programming that's available to them," she said.

The census form includes a questionnaire designed to gauge the level and types of social-service needs faced by Lowell seniors as well as sheets that allow the seniors to request assistance from various local agencies and offices.

It was designed by Andrew Hostetler, a UMass Lowell assistant professor of psychology, working from a survey questionnaire first developed and distributed for a similar, 1999 effort in Boston.

Hostetler and his UMass Lowell research team, which includes the professor and some graduate and undergraduate student research assistants, will conduct the analysis of the data with an eye toward coming up with a continuing effort to help the elderly in Lowell and the Merrimack Valley.

"It sort of sets the stage for 10 or 20 years of research," Hostetler said. "It can lead to a lot of further studies, further research. This information won't end up in some sort of database here on campus or some file cabinet and never be used again."

For more information or to volunteer, call the Lowell Senior Center at (978) 970-4131 or register in person at the center between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.

There are no long-term commitments, though volunteers must submit to a criminal background check and undergo a three-hour training session offered by the Lowell police and senior-center staff.