After the initial astonishment, the voice at the end of the line is cheerful. “You sound just like my nephew; I thought it was him!” Our call surprised Cécile Sinamal, 77, living in Port Washington on the north coast of Long Island. Originally from Martinique, she worked as a cleaner for the Marriott hotel chain for 40 years. She now cares for a friend, a woman with blond hair she has nicknamed “Marilyn Monroe,” and collects the mail for her neighbor, who is currently stuck in Florida due to the pandemic. “I work, I exercise, I play tennis and basketball. I’m doing well!”
Like all people over the age of 65, Cécile Sinamal is among those considered as “at risk” by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This age bracket makes up 80% of the Covid-19 deaths in the United States. In an effort to assist this “particularly vulnerable demographic,” many of whom are isolated with little online presence, French entrepreneur Yann Coatanlem turned to his network.
The businessman, who directed a research group at Citi Bank for 25 years and founded Club Praxis, an influential French-American think tank, amassed a group of 80 volunteers to work with the Association d’Aide aux Seniors Face au Coronavirus. Using consular records available on request, they identified more than 3,000 people over the age of 65 in the New York precinct, which includes the states of New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and the islands of Bermuda.
Emotional and Financial Difficulties
“We have already called more than 250 people, some of whom are struggling emotionally or financially, or who are alone, living with a disability, or unable to go downstairs to buy food and medicine,” says Yann Coatanlem. “An elderly lady in Manhattan hardly dared leave her home to buy a slice of pizza. Another person, 67, had troubles with their visa.”
Volunteers ask a series of scripted questions, such as: “Are you healthy?” “Are you alone?” “Do you have access to essential items?” and “Are you in financial difficulty?” Those asking for help are directed to the relevant organizations, including Entraide Française, which helps those in need, the L’Age d’Or retirement association, which is part of the Accueil New York network, and the French consulate’s social services. An Excel spreadsheet is used to record and centralize all information collected.
Some 30 seniors have said “yes” to the question: “Would you like to be regularly contacted during the crisis?” A sense of community is created with every call. Last week, a caregiver called one of the association’s volunteers when the French lady she was looking after died from a heart attack.
A Moment of Companionship
In Fairfield, Connecticut, a woman made it clear that she did not want to be bothered. But other people have been happy to talk to us, and use these moments to share their experiences. Henri Fromageot, in New Jersey, explained his thesis on molecular chemistry, which he completed at Cambridge University in 1966, and the math classes he is taking online through Montclair State University. “At the moment,” says the octogenarian, “I am working on linear algebra to keep my brain active.”
In the Catskill Mountains, north of New York City, an “ageless” woman refused to give her name. “Call me Maraea; that’s the Tahitian name my father gave me.” She volunteers at a clinic and a food pantry, writes to prisoners on death row, and fights for reproductive rights and peace, and against Bill Gates and Wi-Fi. “I live in divine isolation with the bears, the deer, and the red-tail hawks,” she says.
Not all seniors living in the New York area are alone and suffering. Quite the opposite, in fact. The vast majority seem to be in good health, calm, and hardly concerned by the virus. “We are taking the community’s pulse,” says Yann Coatanlem. “By putting this assistance infrastructure in place, our main role is to be proactive. I arrived in New York two weeks before 9/11, and then we had Hurricane Sandy. There will be other crises, and we must be able to contact seniors.”
Association d’Aide aux Seniors Face au Coronavirus (ASCV)
Phone (toll-free number): (888) 313-5542