Linking Seniors to Resources
Social Service Coordinators Make Life Easier for Residents at LSSI’s Senior Buildings

Eye on LSSI, Spring 2006 ( Download PDF of entire publication)

Mark Dunklau, social services coordinator at LSSI's Downer Place, a senior housing development in Aurora, worked with resident Shirley Dissell (second from right) to arrange for homemaking and transportation services for her. Other staff at Downer Place include Patricia Pacelt, assistant manager (left), and Colleen Smith, manager (far right).Shirley Dissell’s lucky day came last year when Mark Dunklau walked into her single-room apartment at the supportive living facility where she was living. Dunklau, a social service coordinator with Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), was visiting Shirley to assess her for possible residence at LSSI’s Downer Place, an affordable senior apartment complex in Aurora, where he worked.

Dunklau welcomed her.

“He made me feel so good,” reflects Shirley, as she sits at the kitchen table of her new, spotless one-bedroom apartment at Downer Place. Family photos are neatly placed on shelves in the living room. One of her favorites is of herself with her youngest grandson, who is seated on her lap.

Shirley is a petite woman with straight, dark brown hair cut short with bangs. At 65, she is young to be living in a retirement community, let alone in the supportive living facility where she lived before. (A supportive living facility is affordable assisted living that is funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services.) Several years ago, she was diagnosed with a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and was unable to continue working. She requires oxygen and can only walk short distances.

After her husband passed away, her family moved her into the supportive living facility, concerned that she needed more care. But Dunklau saw that with appropriate in-home services, Shirley could live in an apartment. He arranged a twice-weekly homemaker, who cleans, does Shirley’s laundry and takes her to the grocery store or other appointments.

Despite 40 years in the workforce, Shirley retired without pension benefits. Until Dunklau came along, she struggled to get by on Social Security disability income. He has since plugged her into various benefit programs of which she was unaware, such as State of Illinois energy assistance, telephone discounts and various health care programs. Because Downer Place is subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Shirley only pays 30 percent of her adjusted income toward the rent.

A woman who has suffered much hardship and grief in her life, Shirley is flourishing today.

“I’m very lucky,” she laughs. “Mark and all the ladies say, ‘here comes Smiley,’ when they see me. I’m so happy all the time. This is the best time I’ve ever had in my life.”

A Concierge for Senior Residents

Dunklau is part of team of social service coordinators who staff LSSI’s 18 affordable senior apartment developments. The developments offer mostly one-bedroom apartments with fully equipped kitchens and common area amenities and activities.

“A social service coordinator is a little like having your own concierge,” says Lisa Ingalls, associate executive director for LSSI. “The seniors will come to them and say, ‘I need this,’ and the social service coordinator figures out how to take care of it.”

Social service coordinators link LSSI’s senior residents to services and benefits to help them live independently in their apartments for as long as possible, creating a supportive environment ordinarily not found in senior apartment communities.

“I think we are really advocates for the seniors,” says Amy Hall, a social service coordinator at Joshua Arms in Joliet. “Sometimes we are just an ear to listen. They just need to come up and talk about whatever is going on in their life.”

Social service coordinators are also a comfort to family members, especially those who are unable to spend a lot of time with their elderly loved ones, either because of work or distance constraints.

Donna Messina, a social service coordinator at Lincoln Manor in Rochelle, once received a phone call from the daughters of one of her residents, saying that they thought their mother should be moved to a nursing home.

“I said, no, she doesn’t have any medical issues that require skilled care,” Messina recalls telling them. Their concern was that their mother was no longer able to get to the grocery store or clean her apartment. In response, Messina arranged for homemaker services for the resident.

HUD has been instrumental to the success of the social service coordinator movement, which gained momentum in the affordable housing industry about 15 years ago. Today, HUD provides ongoing funding and mandatory training for social service coordinators who work in HUD-funded projects across the country.

“I feel very supported by LSSI and HUD,” says Dunklau. “They give the right tools and the right management support as well. It works to the benefit of all.”

Tackling Medicare Part D and Other Complexities

The most routine and time-consuming task of an LSSI social service coordinator is making sure that residents are enrolled in the appropriate benefits programs and that they then receive the benefits as promised. When problems arise, as they inevitably do, hours must be spent on the phone with agencies to resolve them. Intervening on these issues is a tremendous help to seniors, who often find just navigating through a message tree on a government or business phone system an impossible feat.

This past year, LSSI social service coordinators mobilized forces for the roll-out of the federal government’s new Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage, a well-intentioned and much-needed program that suffered from major implementation problems.

“I pick things up quite quickly, but this stuff that was coming out of the White House and out of the Congress was so convoluted that it would buffalo anybody,” explains Downer Place resident Joe Bou-Sliman. “... I went to Mark [Dunklau], and he settled it.”

As for those seniors who did not approach them with questions, social service coordinators went to them directly, to make sure they understood the importance of enrolling and to help them as needed.

After enrollment, bugs in the new program surfaced.

At Lincoln Manor, Messina spent three weeks on the phone with residents Bill and Roberta Pigg’s HMO provider, trying to straighten out their coverage. Even though they had received a letter confirming coverage in December, in January their insurance did not show up on the pharmacy’s computer. The Piggs had prescription drug coverage under another program before the change was made to Medicare Part D.

The HMO told Messina that it was a computer glitch that would be fixed in 24 hours, but the story continued for three weeks, and each time she called, she would get a different person. By the third week of January, the Piggs had run out of the emergency medication and were facing hospitalization if they could not get their prescriptions filled. Bill has a heart condition and takes 16 pills a day to manage it. Literally at the 11th hour, Messina found someone at the HMO to help her, and the two of them stayed on the phone for about five hours until the Piggs’ insurance showed up on the pharmacy’s computer.

“I wasn’t afraid for myself, but I was for my husband,” recalls Roberta. “I didn’t know what we were going to do if we couldn’t get it. If it hadn’t been for Donna, we would have nothing.”

Initiative Above and Beyond

It takes a special person to be an effective social service coordinator. One must have patience and be an astute listener, communicator, researcher and observer. Of equal importance are ethics and a willingness to take initiative. LSSI has many stellar examples of such individuals.

At Joshua Arms, for instance, social service coordinator Lois Johnson helped to reunite a resident with her long-lost family. The resident had mentioned to Johnson that she had had a sister who was killed when they were young women, and her sister’s husband had taken off with their two boys. The resident had not seen her nephews in 50 years.

Without telling her, Johnson found the nephews on the Internet and wrote to them. They responded immediately, elated to learn that they had an aunt whom they had not known existed. The family is planning a reunion in June, and Johnson is invited.

Seniors are vulnerable to theft and scams, and often it is the social service coordinator who first uncovers it.

At Joshua Arms, Hall was assisting a resident write checks to pay her bills. One day she discovered that the resident was overdrawn. Upon further research, Hall found three checks that had not been written by the resident or herself.

“We found out that a family member had brought a friend to this woman’s apartment, and this friend had stolen three checks, using the woman’s signature stamp,” says Hall. She helped the woman complete a police report, and eventually the perpetrators were found and her money recovered.

At LSSI, social service coordinators mean the difference between an affordable apartment and a nurturing home for seniors. As Dorothy Beyer, 86, a resident at Downer Place, says, “I don’t know what we would do without Mark [Dunklau]. I think every place needs a social service person to advise the seniors.”

For information on LSSI’s senior housing programs, call 847/390-1485. For information on Intact Family, contact 815/997-9196.