Providing survival skills and support for older women

``Women in transition'' is the way today's mature women are described by the young co-founders of Resources For Midlife and Older Women Inc., a nonprofit social agency in New York. Older women represent the fastest-growing segment of the population, and their needs are critical and often complex.

Women over 45, explain the agency's co-directors, social worker Melody Anderson and lawyer Leora Magier, are often in transitional states.

Some are adapting to single life caused by widowhood. Others are recovering from the throes of divorce. Many want to work but can't find jobs, while some wish to go back to school or enter training programs but don't know what steps are involved.

According to Ms. Magier, many of these women face poverty, with minority women among the poorest. Often they are alone and isolated in big cities -- an ``invisible'' generation living amid a youth-oriented society.

To help older women deal with these challenges, Ms. Anderson and Ms. Magier founded Resources for Midlife and Older Women in 1984, following a 1983 New York State Conference on Midlife and Older Women, which they had coordinated.

The agency was funded with seed money by the New York Legislature and later by foundations, corporations, and individuals. The Legislature voted additional funds for this current fiscal year, which ends next April, and a major grant from the Van Amerigen Foundation Inc. extends over three years.

The aim of the two women in establishing the agency was to help older women with their special financial, social, and emotional needs -- and to be especially watchful in areas where age and sex discrimination might occur. They also wanted to help women escape the economic and social dependency many experience in later years.

``We try to help develop particular survival skills in older women,'' says Anderson, ``skills that foster independence and self-confidence and make their later years both productive and satisfying.''

All of the agency's services are free of charge. These include support groups, conferences, workshops, seminars, and referral and information services dealing with a multitude of subjects such as money management, legal rights, mental and physical fitness, and education and employment possibilities.

Weekend rap sessions in past months have enabled women to meet with peers, form friendships, and discuss issues of special importance to their lives.

One conference discussed age and sex discrimination in the work force. A workshop called ``Living Alone and Liking It'' explored ways of building a new life style full of self-reliance and joy. And a panel titled ``Making It Happen'' examined ways to find opportunities in the work force where midlife and older women can use their talents and experience.

Ongoing workshops explore such topics as money management, careers, and self-improvement.

To help provide support to women who come to the agency, a network of sympathetic and understanding volunteers, including lawyers, financial and insurance experts, and bookkeepers, give their professional advice in personal counseling sessions.

The co-directors are particularly interested in finding young women volunteers. ``Exposure to the problems that older women face could alert them to more thoughtful preparation for their own later years,'' says Anderson. ``It is really somewhat late to start planning your future at age 60.''

The agency's phone jingles repeatedly during the day with women calling for advice. A wealthy older woman, recently widowed, phones to say she knows nothing about her stocks and bonds nor even how to balance her checkbook. A retired professional woman in her 70s calls to ask advice on how to manage her limited funds, how to invest her small nest egg, and what kind of insurance she should buy. A woman whose husband is suing for divorce needs legal advice on how to protect her rights and negotiate a

fair settlement. Volunteer experts help each one sort out her difficulties.

The agency's directors have determined that what older women need most is a place to meet and a place where they can find comfort, help, jobs, and new friends.

``We have discovered,'' says Anderson, ``that even one good friendship can reduce the incidence of mental and physical illness. And because jobs are so important, we will now give much more time to job recruitment and placement.

``Many women's organizations have already been calling us to help them find the kind of employees they are looking for -- older, responsible, and reliable. We are now trying to persuade corporations to establish programs for the training and hiring of older workers, just as they have done in the past for young employees. We will be establishing more programs to help this underutilized pool of able but older women workers.''

Representatives of other states and several countries have come to New York to see how Anderson and Magier have developed their agency. The two women have been commended for bringing to the attention of policymakers and legislators the need for specialized services for midlife and older women. ``We are not afraid to explain ourselves to politicians,'' says Magier, ``and to seek their help.''

What has been the response to the agency's work?

``It's been overwhelming,'' says Anderson. ``We little realized the extent and the urgency of the problem. Women have been rushing to get the kind of help they most need. We couldn't grow fast enough to take care of the demand.''

Information on Resources for Midlife and Older Women Inc. (226 East 25th Street) is available by calling 212-696-5501. Women in the tristate area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut may use the same number for assistance and information about appropriate agencies and support services.

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