Elsie French (left, center) is still an imposing presence sitting in her wheelchair in the first floor apartment of her Brooklyn home. She sits tall in her chair, long arms gracefully resting in her lap. On this day, a big card on the coffee table congratulates Elsie on her “105th Birthday.” The number looks astonishing there on the card. But it’s for real.
On the eve of her 105th birthday, Elsie is surrounded by her devoted family – her “70-something” nephew Keith Blackwood and his adult children, Roseann (above, left of Elsie) and Evan, who live upstairs; one of Elsie’s two aides, who is working with her today, Sherneth Hawkins (above, right of Elsie); and lots of flowers. A huge colorful bouquet was delivered by the folks from her church, big fans who when Elsie turned 103, had a party in her honor for her long years of service, festivities that spilled out into the street. The year Elsie turned 100, her extended family had an “Aunt Elsie Family Day” complete with specially made double-heart and “love” key chains in sweet little packages tied with red and gold bows.
Elsie became a member of Independence Care System in August 2012. For nearly nine years, Elsie’s aide for three days a week—first for 6 hours a day, now for 12 hours a day—has been Sherneth; the other three days are covered by her other devoted longtime aide, Marva Williams. While Sherneth affectionately describes their very early days of working together as a bit of a “nightmare,” the two worked out their respective roles and responsibilities. Today, says Sherneth, “when people see how great Elsie is still doing, that she’s happy, and I see that the family is happy with her care, that makes it all worthwhile. You know you’re doing a good job. That’s fulfilling.”
When New York State recently mandated that everyone who was receiving home care services through HRA’s CASA network must enroll in a Medicaid managed long-term care plan, Keith’s biggest fear was that Elsie—who received her home care through CASA—would lose her workers. Consistency of home care for Elsie at her age, says Keith, is crucial. “It’s hard for her at this age to get to know new people,” he explained. “ If someone new comes to fill in, I have to coax her. Sometimes she cooperates, sometimes she doesn’t.” Since Elsie’s home care agency, CABS, was already working with ICS, Keith was very relieved to learn that if he enrolled Elsie in ICS’s MLTC plan, she would be able to keep her workers. And that’s what Keith did.
ICS sent a nurse to evaluate Elsie’s needs, assigned her a Care Manager and a Care Team, and Elsie now receives her home care services, her wheelchair services, and her supplies through ICS. ICS also handles her Medicaid re-certification, which was a bit of a rocky process the first time around, but worked out fine in the end.
Elsie, who never married or had children, loved gardening, growing rose bushes in vivid reds and pinks in her backyard. Her longtime career was as a seamstress in NYC’s garment district, work she continued at home at night and on weekends making and mending clothes for family and friends on the sewing machine that still stands in her kitchen. Today, Elsie can’t do too much for herself, but she knows you’re there. She clearly recognizes the words “Care Plan,” lighting up and repeating those words when Sherneth explains the importance of that customized document, which lays out all the services needed by each and every ICS member and hangs on Elsie’s refrigerator. And Elsie knows what she wants and will let you know, whether it’s dinner or sleep or that something is missing from her coconut water—that something being the brandy that nephew Keith adds a few times a week. And Elsie’s attentive when you get up close. On our visit, I lean in, congratulate her and wish her a very happy birthday. “Thank you,” she says, looking directly into my eyes.
With ICS, Elsie is able to have the help she needs, and the family to have the help they need, to keep her at home. Says Keith (left): “My mother died when I was born. My Aunt Elsie was like a mother to me. I never thought of a nursing home for her. I’d rather have her home.” So would his children. Evan has been cooking for his Great Aunt Elsie for years—Elsie demanded it. Roseann talks easily to her, and obviously enjoys making her smile. All admit it’s hard at times caring for her, but for now, it’s working. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.