NY Irish Center Fights Older Immigrants’ Isolation

NY Irish Center Fights Older Immigrants’ Isolation

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Photo: Seniors and volunteers at the New York Irish Center in Long Island City. (Peter McDermott/Irish Echo)

AGING IRISH IN AMERICA SERIES: Part 2. Read Part 1 here and Part 3 here.

LONG ISLAND CITY, N.Y—In most conversations he has with casual acquaintances or strangers, Paul Finnegan asks the same question: “Do you know someone who might benefit from going to the New York Irish Center?”

It’s part of his personal outreach for the organization he heads up in Long Island City in Queens.

The center comes alive seven days a week with people from all age groups. But Finnegan has been so effective at recruiting those over 65 the center now involves 200-250 seniors in various activities. The center is so important to the lives of Irish elders that it was created in 2005 with partial funding from the Irish government, which continues providing financial support.

The Biggest Threat

“Isolation is the biggest threat facing seniors. They’re very, very vulnerable to going off the grid,” Finnegan said.

He explained, “Maybe your relationship wasn’t so good with your children, or they’ve moved away and you continue to live in the old neighborhood.” In some cases, he added, being widowed can cut a person off from a wider circle of friends and acquaintances.

The New York Irish Center itself is not off the grid: On a westbound No. 7 train it is just three minutes from Grand Central Station in the heart of Manhattan. “That’s our biggest selling point,” said Finnegan, a native of Galway City in Ireland.

Mary Wicelinski was among those who traveled over the Pulaski Bridge from Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s famously Polish community, for the weekly seniors’ lunch on a recent Wednesday.

“It’s a situation where you look forward to it,” she said. “It’s not easy for me to get out. I have a walker,” added Wicelinski, who was born a Fitzgerald to Irish immigrant parents.

“My son called me up. He said, ‘Where are you going?” I said, ‘Bridie is bringing me to the Irish Center.’ He loves to hear that I’m coming here.”

Sitting near her at that mid-morning hour -- 11 a.m. -- were Bridie Mitchell, Peggy Cooney and Carmel McCarthy, respectively from Counties Leitrim, Meath and Cavan. They’d come from Greenpoint, too.

All three have been visiting the center since it opened in 2005. Like many of the other seniors they help with the serving and the washing-up.

“Eight years? It doesn’t seem possible,” Cooney said.

“Our shoes are worn down now,” McCarthy said.

“It’s not just Irish,” said County Offaly native Julia Anastasio, who is married to an Italian American. “We have Italians, Spanish and a couple of black gentlemen are regulars on Wednesdays.”

The New York Irish Center was the brainchild of the Rev. Colm Campbell, who was sent by Irish church officials to act as a chaplain to young emigrants in the mid-1990s.

The three-story structure was acquired by a group of sympathetic Irish businessmen with Campbell’s project in mind. At the time, the neighborhood was beginning to take off after being talked up for years in the media. Eight years on, the high-rise apartment buildings that line the waterfront are just one visible sign of a rapid gentrification.

“He’s a remarkable man,” Finnegan said of Campbell, who now lives in an assisted living facility in England, close to his sister. “He had a vision.”

The priest amended that vision somewhat as he learned more of contributions to Irish American culture of his own older generation and began to understand more about their needs.

Irish Government Support

At the same time, the Irish government was becoming increasingly concerned about Ireland’s aging émigré population. “From the perspective of Dublin there’s a genuine appreciation of what immigrants have done, such as sending remittances home,” which helped their families and communities, Finnegan said.

The center’s board members typically want to give back to the World War II generation of immigrants, Finnegan said. One told him that he knew families in his community in rural Ireland who were greatly dependent on “the parcel” that arrived from England or America.

The Irish government, however, realized that quite a few of them were living abroad in less than comfortable conditions. In the mid-20th century, a large number of Irish males particularly sought work in England. Many became used to a transitory lifestyle, which put them at a much higher risk of isolation later in life.

The Irish community in the United States also found that it wasn’t immune to some of the same problems.

Irish officials in New York supported Campbell’s efforts. Now, half of the funding for the center’s operational costs comes from the Irish government, the City of New York and the American Ireland Fund.

Because of Ireland’s austerity budget, Finnegan said, Dublin is targeting its funding more to frontline services and less on capital building projects.

The center’s board raises the other half of its funding with events, such as “Night of Comedy and Music” scheduled for June 6, with former “Saturday Night Live” comedian Colin Quinn and other entertainers.

The center seeks to help maintain friendships through original social networks, such those that had built up around jobs -- men who worked together as baggage handlers at JFK airport, for example, and women who worked in school cafeterias – or in church parishes or those associated with individual county associations and their umbrella group, the United Irish Counties.

“Others know each other from the dancehall days,” added Finnegan, a married father of two children.

“You hear about people on the grapevine,” he said. “Someone might ask, ‘Where’s Joe?’ Someone else will say: ‘He’s not well but he’ll be in next week.’”

“When people don’t show, you miss them. And, yes, some pass away,” said Julia Anastasio. “Fr. Campbell always made sure there was a memorial Mass.”

From Lunches to Computer Classes

At that moment, Anastasio was readying herself to go to Mass at St. Mary’s Church across the street ahead of the lunch.

She spends much of her time caring for her husband and so nowadays goes to the center for the seniors’ lunch only.

But the center aims other kinds of activities at seniors, as well, notably the Saturday morning computer class. The staff also tends to involve other age groups as teachers, volunteers and participants.

“We mix the generations as much as possible, and we do it pretty successfully,” Finnegan said. It’s good, too, he suggested, for twentysomethings who miss the company of grandparents back home.

Generally, many of the oldest regulars are less inclined to venture out for such evening events as movie or trivia-quiz nights. “Seniors are routine orientated,” Finnegan said, adding, “They’re not looking for much excitement or intrusion in their lives.

“We’re welcoming to all, even those who have substance abuse problems,” Finnegan said. “After getting over the feelings of defensiveness about life, they feel accepted.

“We find a place for them. It never got so bad that we were out of our depth,” he said. “We would like next to hire a social worker, but it wouldn’t be someone upstairs that you made an appointment to see. It would be someone that everyone would know.”

The center’s only other full-time employee is Jane McCarter, the culture and heritage officer. It’s important for Finnegan that the volunteer-staff ratio be weighted considerably towards the former, something that helps it to be truly a community center.

“You don’t want the staff to be a self-perpetuating situation,” he said.

It’s important, too, that the seniors help keep the center ticking.
“This is my little space on a Wednesday. My therapy,” Anastasio said, adding with a laugh, “And I’m still cleaning.”

Peter McDermott this article for the Irish Echo through a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. It is the second part of a series.