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In Washington snowstorm, neighbors, volunteers take care of area's elderly

By Susan Kinzie and Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010; A10

When Betty Hays, who will celebrate her 96th birthday this week, lost power and heat for three days during the weekend's storm, her sons made their way down her unplowed street and carried her out on a lawn chair.

They took her out the back door of her Palisades home, through an apartment building, over to MacArthur Boulevard and into a waiting car.

"I'm sure it was quite a sight," she said.

Across the region, family members, neighbors and volunteers have stepped in to help older people cope with cold homes, snowdrifts and empty cupboards. One family waded through deep snow on an unplowed street in Silver Spring to get a man to a car that could take him to a hospital for dialysis. A woman in Northeast Washington was thankful for a delivery of meals from volunteers as she shivered under blankets in a house with a broken furnace. She had kept her oven and stove on for warmth.

Four-by-fours rumbled over snowy streets to neighborhoods in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, bringing extra food to shut-in residents.

Some programs that assist the elderly have redoubled their efforts because of the storms. But many were unable to staff programs or deliver food and aid on icy roads or in neighborhoods where snow hadn't been cleared.

Most area Meals on Wheels programs had to suspend operations Tuesday, said Michael Flynn, director of communications for the organization. While many were able to deliver extra food Friday before the first storm, officials were not sure when they would be able to start restocking cupboards and freezers again.

Some programs were using four-wheel drive vehicles to deliver meals, said Enid Borden, president and chief executive of the Meals on Wheels Association of America. "This is a very serious situation," she said.

In Loudoun County, food deliveries were suspended. County officials called people to make sure that family members or neighbors had helped them stock up, said Claire Smith, an official with Loudon's Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services.

At Senior Services of Alexandria, volunteers delivered meals to clients Tuesday and rescheduled dialysis appointments. They hoped to be able to deliver food again Friday.

For the able-bodied, the snow is an inconvenience, said Mark Andersen, director of We Are Family in the District. But the elderly "literally become prisoners in their own homes," he said.

Some rely on home health aides to get out of bed, he said. He knew of one woman living in a Columbia Heights building whose aide stayed for the weekend to ensure that she had help throughout the storm. On Wednesday, the aide couldn't get there, so Andersen brought the woman food and other essentials.

Ronald Grey, a 77-year-old veteran and president of the residents' association at the Samuel Kelsey Senior Building in Columbia Heights, said: "We got people here that are supposed to go to the hospital today for doctor's appointments. They can't go. They're in pain. People trying to get prescriptions filled, they can't go. It's just a mess."

Grey slipped Tuesday in the snow and broke his right leg and knee. Back home on crutches Wednesday, he said some neighbors didn't have enough food.

Cindy Shefferman, who said her 2,000-person co-op in Bethesda includes many people ages 75 to 100, was upset that power was out for more than 30 hours during the first storm. Many of her neighbors use wheelchairs or walkers, she said.

Many older people were thankful for conveniences unavailable in previous storms: assisted-living communities where some staff members stayed, sleeping on air mattresses, to keep services going; pharmacies and grocery stores with delivery programs; and neighborhood e-mail lists that made it easier to ask for help with shoveling or running errands.

In Springfield, Mary Anderson, 81, said several neighbors showed up to shovel her driveway, porch and front steps. On Tuesday, other neighbors were digging trenches to ensure that melting snow would drain away from her home and to prevent driveways from becoming slick with ice.

Taffy and Frank Schwelb were grateful that five or six neighboring families in Northwest Washington pitched in, helping to dig them out, keeping an eye on their cat, Bumper, when they checked into a warm hotel and bringing them a gallon of milk they couldn't have carried home.

"They really saved our bacon," Taffy Schwelb said.

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