Conclusion of a series

By M.E. Jones

Correspondent

SHIRLEY -- One of the biggest challenges of Council on Aging outreach coordinator Kathryn Becker's job is getting people who need help to accept it.

"I tell them it's okay," Becker said in a recent interview. She assures her clients that there's nothing wrong with seeking help when they need it.

In a way, it's like Social Security and Medicare, trust funds that today's seniors paid into while working and have a right to collect when they retire. Assistance programs should be viewed in a similar light, she said. In most cases, elderly citizens who worked all their lives paid taxes then that fund some of those programs now. So why shouldn't they use them?

Without assistance, low-income seniors often face tough choices such as whether to buy food or prescription medication, Becker continued. Or, given the cost of fuel these days, keeping their houses warm in winter.

But they don't have to struggle with those issues alone. "There are programs. ... We can help," Becker said.

Outreach is one of those programs, and the coordinator's position is key to its mission "to make contact with senior citizens, determine their needs and interests and to meet (them) through appropriate referrals, program development and advocacy.

Becker's job is to explain community programs and benefits to her clients, assist them in searching for services and assist with program applications.

But the outreach coordinator's commitment goes beyond filling out forms and making phone calls. It includes acting as an advocate and providing support for elders in need.

Interactions with clients or information obtained from others about them are confidential, but there's nothing secret about the lifeline the outreach program offers.

In the Outreach Corner of the COA's monthly newsletter, the coordinator's role is spelled out and it's clear the door is always open: "If you or someone you know has questions or needs help, please call Kathryn at the Council on Aging office," the message states.

The number to call is 978-425-1930. The address is 9 Parker Road, where the outreach coordinator is in-house Tuesday and Thursday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Outreach at work

Around 4 p.m. on a sunny fall afternoon, the typically bustling Senior Center was quiet. In fact, it was closed. Becker's working day was over. Only she, a reporter and a custodian were there when two ladies unexpectedly walked in the front door.

One of them navigated the handicapped access ramp, assisted by a walker and the younger woman with her. Serendipitously, the door, usually locked at that time, was open. With the Shirley Oracle reporter arriving after-hours for a scheduled interview, Becker had left it unlocked.

Surprised but smiling, she welcomed the visitors and briefly showed them around, with an invitation to return when the center was open for business. One of the women was a client Becker had visited earlier at home, Mary Caggiano.

After hearing Becker describe the programs and activities the Senior Center had to offer, Mrs. Caggiano decided to stop by and see the place for herself. A resident of Shaker Meadows "just up from Florida," she said she'd definitely be back, adding that she's particularly interested in chair yoga.

Three years and counting

Becker has worked in Shirley for about three years. The first year, her salary was paid with a service incentive grant that COA director John Oelfke secured from the Executive Office of Elder Affairs. The grant was shared with the town of Bolton and Becker split her time between the two towns. 

Now, in addition to Shirley, Becker works as COA director in Ashby, where she lives. The other position is funded from the other town's annual grant. In Shirley, her salary comes from a single-purpose nest egg provided by the Friends of the Council on Aging.

The nonprofit group went all out for the cause when the original grant for the position petered out, soliciting donations and launching a major fundraising campaign.

The Friends banked enough to cover the position for five years. Without a line item in the town budget to cover the position, it could expire when the bankroll runs out.

Asked if she worries about that, Becker said absolutely not. She will continue to do her job, she said.

As for whether it will be town-funded in the future, that's up to others to decide.