Angel of Mercy

Gail Norton is a one-woman task force, helping Broward's aged to cope at home

The In-Home Trainer Program began in 1992 when the federally funded Area Agency on Aging was challenged to do something creative with federal dollars distributed through the Older Americans Act. Other Area Agencies (there are 11 in Florida) put out pamphlets or held conferences, says agency director Edith Lederberg. Broward County's Area Agency wanted to create a program to help seniors cope with the indignities of getting old so they could remain in their own homes. Living independently is not only more cost-effective, "It's more humane," says Lederberg.

Federal grants of about $45,000 a year pay for Norton's program. This year, the Area Agency on Aging also won a $100,000 grant from United Parcel Service, half of which went to buy Norton a customized Ford van equipped with all the trappings of a rolling office. Being mobile allows her to cover more of the county, and the van enables her to bring along her collection of "adaptive-living" equipment: raised toilet seats that make it easier to get on and off the pot, hooks that help you put on your pants, sponges on a stick for washing those tough-to-reach body parts, and a three-foot shoehorn so you can get your shoes on without bending over.

It's a collection of stuff you never thought you'd need, and between home visits she hauls it around in two large satchels to senior centers throughout the county. The shoehorn drew "oooohs" and "aaaaahs" from the audience of 18 at one such demonstration in Miramar, while the dressing stick prompted excited questions. But the crowd really perked up when Norton pulled a $12 pair of panties with removable liners -- for preventing "surprises" -- out of her bag.

"I have a pair on!" one woman shouted.
Norton is an LPN by training. Her resume includes experience in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. She's hip to the idea nobody should have to go to a nursing home before his or her time. "I knew what was going on in them," she says, "the nitty-gritty, down-and-out situations, if you will. I felt I had an insight on what would keep people out of them."

A New York native who's lived here 15 years, Norton hasn't lost the frenetic, big-city pace. Call her on her cell phone, and she'll likely have another conversation going, a second phone jammed in her ear, like a stockbroker. Make an appointment with her, and she'll probably be late because something just came up. You can feel time evaporating in her presence.

On another day Norton drops in on Hazel McFarlane, an 82-year-old Lauderhill resident she has been visiting regularly since February. After McFarlane was hospitalized with heart trouble, Norton made sure she was getting home-nursing care. When it looked like she would have trouble getting up and down the stairs at her two-story condo, Norton brought her a walker.

On this visit Norton drops off a Publix bag full of powdered milk, canned fruit, rice, and pasta from a local food pantry. She chats with McFarlane, urging her to watch her salt intake, then checks her feet for swelling and her bathtub to make sure there's a handrail.

McFarlane says she's lonely. "I would like somebody to see me, but I don't go out anymore." Norton promises to get someone to visit from one of the many agencies with which she works.

Old age is a bit of a crapshoot -- it may work out well and it may not. You may be able to dress and feed yourself, and you may need help going to the bathroom. If the latter proves to be the case, the choices are two: live out your days in a nursing home or learn how to use a sponge on a stick.

"Who thinks about these things?" asks Norton. "Who wants to think about these things? Well, there's me."

Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address:

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