Hospital gets $500K grant to aid seniors hurt by 9/11

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After Sept. 11 the executive director of North Shore University Hospital at Forest Hills watched as many of his senior citizen volunteers struggled to come to terms with the horror of the attacks.

“People didn’t come to work,” said Robert Hettenbach. “They couldn’t leave their homes.”

Armed with a $500,000 grant from New York state’s Project Liberty fund, Hettenbach and his hospital staff now have a new way to help those senior citizens whose mental health was rocked by the events of Sept. 11.

The Elderly Outreach Program, which is to begin the first week of May, will identify and refer for treatment seniors who may be experiencing such mental problems as post-traumatic stress disorder due to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The hospital, which covers Forest Hills, Rego Park, Kew Gardens and Kew Gardens Hills, is located in a naturally occurring retirement community, meaning many of the people who live in its surrounding neighborhoods are over the age of 65.

The program is targeting the elderly because they represent the group most likely to have a reaction to Sept. 11 that went undetected, said Sharon Tietze, associate executive director of physician development and community services at the hospital.

Many seniors are homebound and unable to gain access to services; others are isolated and have few people with whom to share their fears; and a large number have been exposed to violence through the Holocaust or wars and thus may be at greater risk for mental distress following Sept. 11, Tietze said.

The program’s launch is particularly important now because post-traumatic stress disorder usually tends to kick in six months after an intense event, said Hettenbach.

Gilla Karpel, 82, of Forest Hills, lost her entire family in the Holocaust. Though she was horrified by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she said she has not experienced any of the post-traumatic stress Hettenbach said was common among Holocaust survivors following the Twin Towers’ collapse.

But Karpel did see how the services could be a lifesaver to some of her fellow survivors. “I think it is absolutely necessary,” she said. “It will be appreciated and lots of people will need this.”

The main goal of the initiative is to find seniors in need of help, Tietze said.

“Outreach is the cornerstone of this program,” she said. “Those in need of these important services may not be able to seek them on their own.”

The program will employ five community outreach workers who will work with churches, temples, civic organizations, politicians and community centers to identify seniors who may require mental help. They will speak languages prevalent in the community, including Chinese, Korean, Russian, Punjabi and Spanish. Organizers even hope postal and delivery workers will help them identify elderly individuals who need assistance.

Sponsored by the Federal Emergency and Management Agency and the Center for Mental Health Services, Project Liberty is being administered by the state Office of Mental Health and the city Department of Mental Health.

Funding for outreach and crisis counseling services became available through FEMA after President George Bush declared the five boroughs a federal disaster area. FEMA’s Crisis Counseling Program being offered through Project Liberty has assisted people affected by large-scale disasters for more than 20 years.

If you or anyone you know is interested in finding out more about the Elderly Outreach Program at North Shore University Hospital at Forest Hill, call 718-830-4210.

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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