First in a two-part series
By M.E. Jones
SHIRLEY -- Job description aside, Council on Aging outreach coordinator Kathryn Becker's task on any given day at work might be as simple as listening to clients' concerns or as complex as knowing where to look for programs and services they want and need and how to stitch it all together.
Her card file includes all the right numbers and her network of local contacts includes the Board of Health, Police and Fire Departments, with lists of homebound seniors who have signed up for well-being checks, especially when there's a storm and the power goes out.
In some cases, emergency intervention is required, Becker said. As a "mandatory reporter," senior services she's called upon to initiate can and do include protective services in dire home situations such as elder neglect or abuse or unsafe living conditions, such as hoarding. The list goes on, but as a trained and experienced professional, she's prepared to deal with issues as they come up, she said.
Mostly, she's here to help clients and their families, providing consultations in the office or in-home assessments to determine what services are needed. The helping hands she has access to range from assistance with housework and cooking to shuttle service for grocery shopping trips or doctors appointments to meals on wheels.
Quietly friendly and cautiously forthright during a recent interview, Becker came across as someone who's easy to talk to but very careful about protecting her clients' privacy.
The former Nantucket resident also worked in that island community as an outreach coordinator and landed a like job in Groton after relocating to Pepperell a few years ago.
When she started her current job in Shirley about three years ago, Becker also worked part-time in Bolton, with both salaries paid by a joint grant shared by the two towns.
She no longer works in Bolton but still has two jobs. In addition to her position in Shirley, Becker is COA director in Ashby where she and her husband now own a home.
A day in the life...
Asked to describe a typical day on the job, Becker said most of them are "anything but." Still, she sketched a telling picture.
One day might begin by greeting folks lined up at the door waiting for the Senior Center on Parker Road -- where her office here is located -- to open. That happened when the latest government fuel assistance grants came out and people needed her help with applications, Becker said
Her workday might also start -- or wrap up -- off-site.
At the Shaker Meadows senior housing complex, for example, where Becker holds hours once a month to talk about available programs, meet residents and answer questions. Word has gotten around, she said, and residents there make good use of her time.
Seniors can also make an appointment to meet privately with Becker at the Senior Center, where she works two days a week.
There are frequent drop-ins, too, she said. Some need specialized services for which she can provide information or help filling out forms, which they can do together on the spot. Or they might need help finding available programs they are eligible for. Fuel assistance, for instance, or LIHEAP (low income home energy assistance program.)
Federally and state funded through the New England Farmworkers Council, the well-publicized program provides subsidized fuel deliveries each season to pre-screened, qualified recipients, including "many seniors who need it," Becker said.
Not a full tank, though, and sometimes not enough to last through a New England winter. "People often run out around January or February," Becker said. If so, they can call her to ask about emergency help. Tapping her network, she'll seek alternative avenues to span the gap, such as charitable organizations in the community, she said.
Not all the scenarios were low-income-related.
Her client might be, for example, an elderly woman whose husband of many years died. Having lived comfortably as a couple, wives from a certain generation are often at a loss when their husbands are no longer there to handle the family finances and there are no children or relatives nearby to help get their affairs in order.
Well versed in the strategic to-do list for surviving spouses, from grief recovery to practical matters such as personal finances, Becker said she helps sort through papers, locate resources and take steps to re-organize, stabilize and move on.
Her client might be a man who lives alone and has difficulty caring for himself. He doesn't eat properly or get out and about. In her experience, such clients do much better with services they need. Cases like that, with successful outcomes, are especially satisfying. "It's great to see them doing so well," she said.
Asked about the toughest issues she's had to deal with, Becker cited a case of identify theft not long ago. "It made me want to get my own stuff in order," she said.
When someone's identity (social security number and other personal information) is stolen and used to access accounts and illegally obtain credit to make purchases, the victim must set the records straight, which includes notifying necessary agencies for credit reports, Becker said. In this case, she facilitated the process, which would have been a formidable task for her client to tackle alone. "It can be overwhelming," she said.
It's all in a day's work. But Becker is in her element.
"I love working in Shirley," she said.
For those who can't come to her, Becker goes to them. "I assist elders here or I go to the home if they can't get out," she said.