Senior service

New program targets substance abuse and other risks to the elderly

Drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and sex: they’re not just topics of concern to young people. The six-week Senior WISE program is bringing education and awareness on these subjects and others to the residents of the four senior housing buildings in North Bergen.
“We go into how to protect themselves if they are sexually active,” said Maria Rivera, program supervisor for Partners in Prevention, the presenters of the series. “We talk about smoking and the dangers of that and what it does to your body. We show how different parts of the body are affected by tobacco. Basically it gives them a lot of tools that they already know, but it enhances them.”
The program kicked off on Wednesday, Jan. 6 at the Cullum Tower development. Sessions take place once a week and last about two hours. The first one focused on understanding the changes associated with aging, and included a quiz and discussion about the top 10 causes of death in America, leading to spirited interaction among the attendees.
“It’s limited seating, so they have to sign up,” explained Katherine Paletta, director of social services for North Bergen, who oversees the seniors programs. “I love it because they’re asked questions so they have to think.”
“We break them down into groups depending on the topic and they have to brainstorm together,” said Rivera.

The Senior WISE program offers education and instruction on topics ranging from depression and medication misuse to cultural diversity and safe sex.
Cullum resident Norma Quintero, a native of Ecuador, attended with her sister Betty for one reason. “To learn more about well-being,” she said. “How to be healthy.”
The program is restricted to about 20 seniors at a time. Each participant receives items throughout the course like pill boxes and stress cards, and lunch is provided after each session. At the end the seniors attend a graduation ceremony where they receive a certificate and a gift card to a local vendor like Target or ShopRite.

Facilitating wellness

Partners in Prevention, headquartered in Secaucus, was established in 1988 after the Hudson County Board of Freeholders identified the need for a non-governmental, county-wide organization to serve as a substance abuse prevention resource center. Originally called the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of Hudson County (NCADD Hudson), the nonprofit organization has gone through several name changes.
As stated on their website, “The mission of Partners in Prevention is to combat and defeat alcoholism and drug abuse in the community through involvement, consultation, education, advocacy and referral programs, working with individuals, groups and associations throughout Hudson County, the State of New Jersey, and the nation.”
Among the programs they offer are numerous daytime school initiatives to educate kids about the dangers of substance abuse, bullying, violence, and sexual activity. They also host seven-week Strengthening Families programs to foster parenting skills, children’s life skills, and family skills for higher risk families.
Senior WISE (Wellness Initiative for Senior Education) is a program developed by the New Jersey Prevention Network, one of Partners in Prevention’s sister agencies. The award-winning program has reached over 40,000 individuals since its launch in 1996.
Facilitator Linda Doering, who led the session at Cullum Towers, has been teaching WISE for about two years, in addition to leading Strengthening Family sessions. “I’ve been facilitating healthy relationship education since 1993 in 10 different countries,” she said. “Now I teach from sixth grade ‘til people no longer have a pulse.”

Social support

Hilda Kohl, a Cullum resident for 11 years, can no longer walk but hasn’t let that slow her down. Getting around in an electric wheelchair, she attends every event she can and was glad to see the building’s community room reopened recently after extensive renovations. “I’m happy here,” she said with a wide smile. “Everybody helps each other.” Her reason for attending the session? “To get together with people.”
“It’s largely about getting them together and having fellowship with each other and having interaction instead of being home by themselves,” said Rivera.
With about 14 full time and eight part time employees, Partners in Prevention services all of Hudson County. They have hosted WISE sessions in Jersey City, Kearny, Bayonne, and Hoboken. This is their first time bringing the program to North Bergen.
“We have a state funding grant and North Bergen was one of the communities that we received the funding for,” she said. The grant stipulated that the money could be used for Bayonne and/or North Bergen. “You could split it [between the two] but I chose not to because of my relationship with North Bergen. They’re so supportive. Anytime I need anything, they’re there to help me. So if we can bring free services into North Bergen, I’d rather do that.”
The three-year grant allows them to hold three full cycles of six-week sessions per year (four in 2016 because one carried over from the prior year). “We’re going to be doing the four senior buildings in North Bergen. Once we do the rotation of 20 seniors, then we’ll come back here and start all over again with a different group of seniors. Our goal is when our three years are completed, we will have touched every senior in North Bergen.”
Albert Dericco has been a resident of Cullum Tower for 42 years. “I used to be in charge of the building,” he said. “I was the head of facilities here. I went to boiler school and repaired the boilers and everything. I was in charge of the building for over seven years. I retired. My wife passed away 13 years ago. And I’m still living here.”
As to why he attended the session, “I’m inquisitive,” he said from his motorized wheelchair at the front of the room near the facilitator. At age 92, “Maybe I can learn something.”

Art Schwartz may be reached at

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