Written by Karen Gellender Friday, 15 July 2011 00:00It can be easy to miss Harvest House on Cold Spring Road- though it’s right past BOCES, there’s no big sign that announces its presence. The only clue is a mailbox that says the organization’s name—fitting for a group that sees itself as part of the community in every sense, not outside of it. However, maybe that’s why, in some respects—even now that Harvest House is celebrating 25 years of serving independent seniors—it’s still Syosset’s best-kept secret.
Unlike an assisted living facility, Harvest House, directed by the Sisters of St. Dominick and owned by the Emmaus House Foundation, an independent nonprofit, is unique in that it’s a home for well-elders: independent seniors who don’t need the medical attention provided at assisted living facilities, but choose not to live alone. While there are different reasons seniors choose to move to Harvest House, including the death of one’s spouse, what the residents all have in common is that just because they are fully capable of living alone doesn’t mean that they want to.
Furthermore, even if well-meaning children offer Mom or Dad (or Grandma or Grandpa) a place in their homes somewhere else, who’s to say that these men and women want to leave their hometown, their friends, their church, or even their local pizza place behind?
According to Harvest House Founder and Executive Director Sister Jeanne A. Brendel, O.P., CSW, creating a pleasant environment where seniors can live together without uprooting themselves isn’t just a question of common sense—why should people be lonely when they don’t have to be?—but about making a contribution to the philosophy of aging. The elderly have internalized what society has always told them about growing older, said Sister Jeanne, and it’s not necessarily fair or accurate. “It’s telling them it’s not a good time, and we’re getting rid of that,” said Sister Jeanne with a smile, going on to say that the elder years are an important time in one’s life.
“We’re living longer; we need new concepts and this is a model of what could be,” she said.
Furthermore, the model is cost-effective. In addition to the fact that it takes advantage of the abundance of homes already available, especially on Long Island, instead of erecting new facilities, it’s also a preventative model; happy people with a built-in support network tend to suffer less stress, contract fewer diseases, and need less medical care, both in general and in regard to the elderly.
“It just seems it would be so much more cost-effective to have more of these, rather than building this big institutional [place],” said Sister Mary Butler, another Sister who helps run Harvest House.
However, despite the many benefits, not everyone immediately approved of this new model; according to the Sisters and the residents, some of their neighbors felt threatened by the concept because it was new and different, or because they didn’t like the idea of unrelated adults living together in the same house. “It took us a long time to break down that barrier,” said Sister Jeanne.
Remembering the early days of Harvest House leads Sister Jeanne into the story of Michael, a former resident originally from Ireland who lived alone in Manhasset for years after his wife died. “The first night he sat down for supper, he turned around and said ‘I don’t know when I’ve eaten with people last,’” remembered Sister Jeanne. “Those are the kinds of stories that we have here.”
Not pleased with the chilly reception from the neighbors, Michael took matters into his own hands quite literally; he baked bread for one of the families living next door to Harvest House, breaking the ice for years to come. Gradually, the public perception of the house aligned with that of its inhabitants; that these are people who are part of the Syosset community, not only because they patronize local businesses and restaurants, but because they choose to be.
There are currently five residents living at Harvest House, out of a maximum of eight. Each resident has his/her own room with its own television set and telephone, and the group shares common spaces like the kitchen, living room and backyard pool. A staff member prepares dinner, while Sisters Mary and Jeanne usually collaborate on lunch and the residents prepare breakfast for themselves. Light cleaning and chores are handled by the residents as well, according to health and inclination, with help from volunteers who pitch in with more strenuous tasks like raking leaves.
Anne, a resident who has lived in Syosset for 56 years, displayed her room, featuring many pictures of her grandchildren and a large flatscreen TV. She explained that after living alone for several years after her husband died, her daughter helped her find Harvest House. However, she was concerned; would it be all right for Anne to continue with her daily glass of wine? Not a problem: Harvest House has cocktail hour.
In terms of entertainment, aside from plenty of reading and card games, volunteers from the community come on a weekly basis and provide activities such as arts and crafts, bingo, and educational programs. Occasionally, the group goes out to dinner together to local restaurants like Christiano’s in Syosset. “We like to go out and party,” confirms Minnie, another resident, with a mischievous smile.
In addition, the group likes to get out into the neighborhood whenever possible—the residents have been invited to concerts at Syosset High School, and Village Elementary School invites them to their concert every year. One resident even posed as a model for BOCES art classes.
Naturally, another important source of entertainment is family visits; resident Ciel says that she’s always happy to see her three children, six grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.
Living at Harvest House costs approximately $1400 per month, although the cost does go up with cost of living increases. Sister Jeanne says it helps that the nonprofit always buys houses mortgage-free. “We’ve worked hard to keep it affordable,” she said.
Of course, there are likely many seniors who would like to live at Harvest House, but medical conditions preclude them from doing so; for that reason, the nonprofit plans to open another house for seniors, for individuals who require some medical care, but are still relatively independent and do not want to move to an assisted living facility. Some of the funds from the organization’s annual fundraiser, the Harvest Jazz Brunch at Crest Hollow, are currently being put toward that project.
Ideally, Sister Jeanne would like to see this model expand all over the country, and provide more seniors the opportunity to live pleasantly, affordably, and among friends. “The best thing about it-becoming family—is communication,” she said. “Some of the conversations that go on at our table, they wouldn’t be happening anyplace else—and that’s what life is about.”
In addition to Syosset, there are now Harvest Houses located in both Floral Park and Lake Grove. For more information about Harvest House, or to find out how to volunteer, visit the website at www.harvesthouses.org/.