On the Phone at Bay Ridge Center — A Talk with Kathy Boyle

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

After six weeks at her new job last winter, Kathy Boyle had to make a fast adjustment as Covid-19 swept through New York City and all the senior centers were told to stop their congregate programming and meals. Kathy was the new Front Desk Receptionist at Bay Ridge Center, but suddenly there were no members to greet.

Bay Ridge Center has not laid off any staff, and while some work at home, Kathy has continued to work at the center, which is just a 10-block walk from her home. Her first re-assignment was to take the Grab and Go lunches out to the dozens of people lined up outside. This allowed her to continue using her greeting skills, but it was also a time of worry and upheaval for everyone. Then, within a few weeks, the Department for the Aging started meal delivery, and Kathy was shifted to answering the constantly ringing phone and making calls to check on members.

Kathy remembers those first weeks as the virus raged as an especially intense time, with many members expressing their fear, feeling very isolated, not having enough food, or wondering how they’d get their medication refilled. The phone rang nonstop at the Center through April, and all the staff working the phones had a list of neighborhood resources and ways to get help. The food delivery system was erratic in the beginning. Callers did not get deliveries on a regular schedule or the food package was left outside a door or even at the curb, so Kathy and others often had to encourage a fearful and fragile elder to open the door and see if the food was outside. Other times they had to respond to questions like “what am I supposed to do with the 18 meatball dinners that were delivered today.”

Besides the questions and concerns, wellness callers usually found a grateful person at the other end of the line who was very happy to have someone to talk to. During the first couple months Kathy said the focus was very much on whether a person’s needs were being met or finding help as needed. Often she found herself encouraging individuals to “turn off the news” to dispel anxiety, but she also talked to many who mentioned living through WWII and the depression. “I’ve been through hard times before.” “I’ve seen worse; we’ll get through this.” And everyone expressed their gratitude for the outreach. Kathy gives a big shout-out to the Meals on Wheels delivery staff. For the hundreds of people who are homebound, seeing a friendly face when food is handed over is a lifeline to the world outside and often one of the few human interactions in their day.

Over time the topics have moved on to asking how people are spending their time, giving suggestions to those who are bored, and even getting calls from members who want to know how the staff is doing. Kathy and other callers hear lots of lovely stories too, such as...

...Members who realized they could give some of their excess food package to a neighbor who needed food;

...The widower who got tired of the delivered meals and is teaching himself to cook;

...The member who got out her sewing machine and started making masks to give away;

...Families who stayed connected with drive-by visits;

...A caller who excitedly reported mastering the technology to have a first-time-ever Facetime visit with her granddaughter;

...The members who “met” for a Zoom martini party.

...A member who started making baby clothes that her church

distributes to those in need;

...Grandparents who found new involvement with grandkids

while parents could have much needed space to work at home.

...And, members who are enjoying seeing friends and participating

in Bay Ridge Center’s online programming!

As the virus threat in the city has decreased and things have begun to open up, members are getting out a bit more, to the store or for walks, bike rides, or socially distanced visits with friends. But Kathy says she still gets “every kind of call you can think of” from where to get a car fixed or asking for help doing taxes to the occasional “If my husband doesn’t go out of the house I’ll go crazy!”

She finds Bay Ridge Center members are a resilient and creative group of folks who keep up with things, know “more than we do or know it first,” and often have strong faith that will help them get through challenging times. Kathy finds her job very rewarding and is grateful to members for the inspiration they give her and for their concern about Bay Ridge Center staff. Like so many callers, she is anxious to reach a time when we can get together again and share hugs with friends and family members.

By Ruth Benn, Outreach Associate for Bay Ridge Center involved with promoting programs, sending program emails, updating the website and calendar, and trying to keep folks connected on social media.

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