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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the March 10, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

When You Need Help, Who Will Be There ?

Help! Take away the exclamation point, make that helping people to age in place (i.e. in and around Princeton) and you have CWW (Community Without Walls).

Most of us are of Medicare age (although there are no age restrictions), and we come from all over the area. Most of us have grown children in other spaces who no longer need us daily and some of our friends have moved away. Some of us still work, but many of the old connections are gone.

When I first heard about CWW in 1992 from longtime friend, (and one of its founders) Dick Bergman, whom I ran into on Palmer Square, I wanted no part of anything to do with “aging.” I was in my early 60s, dealing with my mother who had come east from Chicago suffering from vascular dementia. My mother died in early 1993, and I slowly recovered from her hellish last years. The ‘90s went on; so did my 60s.

From friends in my morning aerobics class at the Suzanne Patterson Senior Center, I’d occasionally overhear talk about CWW. It sounded interesting. Once after class I spoke to Harriet Bogdanoff about joining. She told me House 1 was full.

I went on with my life, which included occasional writing assignments for this newspaper. One night, a few years later, I answered the kitchen phone and the caller told me I was on the waiting list for House 3, which was forming. Would I like to join? Harriet must have put me on the list. I said yes. My husband, Irving, agreed. It was time,” I told friends, “to stop playing ostrich, with my head in the sand, about aging.”

CWW, I learned, is divided into houses; each sets its own membership limit; often about 75 or more members. Early houses drew from the Princeton Community. Houses 4, and 5, and now-forming House 6 pull from a wider geographic area. House 1, I gathered, seemed to be a diverse group, and included some of my good friends; House 2, someone told me, was the “academic house.” Many people in it were associated with the University, (a few women, wives of academicians, were in my aerobics class). House 2 had a noted play reading group run by my aerobics friend, Barbara Herzberg, who taught and directed drama before she retired.

Each house has its own rules and by-laws. I can speak from experience best about my house, House 3. Events include monthly meetings or interest group events. Dues in our house are now $30 annually.

We’re a loosely knit group organization. We meet monthly on a Sunday at a member’s house, at a development’s club house, courtesy of Barbara Schaeffer, at the Suzanne Patterson Senior Center, or at Windrows. We bring food to our monthly meetings (but not to Windrows) and have about an hour or so of eating (“grazing”) and chatting.

At our monthly meetings we might hear speakers on topics of interest to us (memory, eldercare care management, elder law), or we might divide into small groups and discuss a subject (lately we discussed “What’s new in your life?” A leader of each group reports the most interesting finding to the whole group.) It’s in the smaller groups that we get to know each other better.

Members become active at their level of interest. (Irv, when well, was on the steering committee. Anyone from the house may come to the committee meetings.) There’s also a New Membership Committee, which fills open spots when a house member has dropped out or dropped out finally (i.e. died). These sad notifications come by E-mail sent by Albert Medwin. The Medwins, Albert and Marilyn, once strangers, now friends, also run our movie group, one of several in our house. Arrangements are made by E-mail.

There’s also a Program Committee, which Lois Dowey runs. We’re unique in having a beeper, now undergoing repair, a number you can call when you need a ride (mostly locally), or want company. I’ve used the beeper to ask for a ride when my car was in the shop, and so have met, on more individual level, a few house members. Harriet Teweles and Joan Efron currently run the Caring and Sharing Committee. If you’re ill or injured (and want meals, visits, help shopping) you let them know; if you don’t want help, you opt out. The house has a newsletter and several movie groups. (Through mine I’ve made new friends).

We’re all friends now (though there was one blow up). We all agree we’ve “never seen so many movies.” We used to have pot luck dinners, but they’ve fallen away. Various members volunteered to host them and Carol Jacobs ran them, communicating by E-mail to instruct those who have signed up to bring salad, a main course, or a dessert. There’s also a cooking group, a walking group that meets weekly, and a small all-house poetry group. An all-house playreading group is forming.

House 3, in the five years it’s been in existence, has gone from a diverse group of unknowns, few of whom knew each other beforehand, to a group of friends. (Who says older people can’t make new friends?) We come from different careers and add various skills and talents to our mix. We had a special party for Evelyn Witkin who recently won the National Medal of Science for her pioneering work years ago on DNA. Rice Lyons wrote words we sang to “It had to be You,” and Laura Kruskal made an origami crown. As Evelyn said “a few years ago, I knew none of you. Now you’re all family.” The musician Moshe Budnor plays for our holiday parties and writes music. His wife, Lea, accompanies him on the piano. Joyce Usiskin, a recently retired lawyer for the state, made a presentation to the group, divided into small groups, about several test cases. Re-gathered with our verdicts, we found ourselves lousy juries. Bob Teweles, in the seed business, recently returned from Iraq and spoke to us about his journey.

On a personal level, new House 3 friends have helped me during Irv’s lengthy, increasingly worsening illness. (He’s too weak, tired and wants no visitors, he’s said.) Esther Dresner snail-mailed me information on stroke, and she and Joe drove me to the body shop (I was carsitting for my son). Doris Peshkin — until her recent move — and I even had our own driving arrangements, independent of the beeper. Moshe Budnor arrived to drive me another time (thanks to the beeper); a few sent “get well” cards.

George Lovitt in our movie group offered good words (he had cared for his first wife in her lengthy illness). Lois Dowey, also in our movie group, — she had just lost her husband — was a good example of how to be busy, composed, and strong. Shirley Dwork, a House 3 member who used to host steering committee meetings, and Martha Kingsley, another widow, (both of whom I see in aerobics class) ask often about Irv (I wish I had good news). Joyce and Clive Usiskin invited me along to enjoy conviviality in a casual dinner out and a movie, and Bob Levine, to whose E-mail I responded, offered advice over tea.

Once, a few months ago, I took Irv (wheelchair in the trunk) to our Chinese movie group dinner. (I knew they would understand; we were all elders. They did more: Al Medwin met us at the door and wheeled Irv in; and the group toasted his presence.Of course he had seen no movies, but who asked?) Until his last stroke he had been a movie-watching member of the group. But the outing left him more than usually enervated.

Although eating precedes every meeting, we’re not just social. Ben Abeles, active in the Trenton soup kitchen, had us drop off bags of food in his garage. At one holiday party at Bill Hearon and his wife Joan Bartl’s home we brought toiletry gift items to be given to the soup kitchen and to Womanspace.

It’s our interest groups, our newsletter, our monthly meetings, our greeting new friends around town that makes us a community. Food, of course, is a time-honored way to get together. Add E-mail, this 21st century way to be connected. It’s how I’m sending these words to U.S. 1.

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