Angel of Mercy | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Angel of Mercy

Gail Norton is knocking on the front door of a Century Village condo in Deerfield Beach, but nobody's answering. So she knocks harder. Then she raps on the window. Then she cups her hands to her mouth and yells between the glass slats in the door, which are open to afford ventilation on this hot, windy Thursday afternoon.

"Hello, Rose!"
Still no answer. "This doesn't look good," says Norton, all business in her sunglasses and suit. Again she knocks, raps, pounds, and yells. A neighbor says Rose is hard of hearing, so Norton cranks up her voice to taxi-hailing decibels, which suits her Brooklyn accent beautifully.

"Sometimes you gotta be obnoxious," says Norton without a hint of apology. "You should hear me in my office, I'm yelling into the phone and everyone's looking at me."

Manner aside, Norton has a way with old people -- direct, no nonsense, factual, yet empathetic -- that builds trust at a remarkable speed. People who have known the 45-year-old mother of four a short period of time call her an angel in disguise and wonder how they got along without her. People she's met twice invite her to sit at their kitchen table, pour out their life stories to her, and then implore her to come back soon.

Norton is the Area Agency on Aging's In-Home Trainer Program. She developed the program, she does all the work, it's hers. As such she's the only person in Broward who goes door to door to check on the county's vast senior population. When someone hasn't seen a neighbor, friend, or relative in a while and fears the worst, Norton often gets the call. State agencies won't get involved until things really get ugly -- dementia, abuse, neglect, et cetera. The county has programs that provide food, companionship, and help around the house, but the waiting list has about 1000 names on it.

Norton has the distinct advantage of not working for a government agency. "It's not like other services where you call and they say, 'Hold on, I'll give you intake.' I hear 'fire,' I hear 'incontinence,' I hear 'weight loss,' I go."

In Rose's case, the building president hadn't seen her or husband Sal out and about lately. So he called Norton, who came out once to see if they were OK and is now back on a follow-up.

But there's still no answer at the door. Norton trudges around back of the condo where she finds Rose on the screened porch, safe and sound.

Rose lets Norton in, offers a seat at the dinette, and tells Norton her tale of growing old. Her health is OK, considering she's 89 years old and all, but Sal is 93, and he isn't doing so hot. His vision is gone, and his hearing is going. He doesn't like to leave the house anymore. He sleeps almost all day. And Rose is the only person in the world he can count on for help. "It's tough," Rose says in a weary tone. "I didn't realize old age would turn out this way."

Norton promises to arrange respite care so Rose can get out of the house once in a while and to get a minister to make weekly visits so the couple doesn't have to take a city bus to get to church anymore. All things considered, she says, walking back to her van, Rose and Sal are doing pretty well. "That's a good outcome," she observes. "The apartment was neat, there was no foul odors.... A lot of my assessment is what kinds of odors are going on. Do I smell urine? Rotten food? Something burning?"

Not all visits go so well. Norton recalls the time she knocked on another Century Village door and found a blind woman suffering from dementia and living in filth. "When I walked in, the roaches were ruling and reigning," she says with a mixture of sadness and disgust. "They're usually not out in the daylight, so when they walk around like they own the place, it's pretty bad. I went to the sink and there were at least ten roaches there, and a huge palmetto crawled over the top of my shoe."

Neighbors called her when they smelled something burning in the apartment. When she arrived the woman was eating food covered with ants.

"I called the family, but more important I called Adult Protective Services," she says. "What could I do alone?"

There's a good side to aging, a scenario in which people stay active, alert, and involved all their lives. Norton doesn't work with those people. The doors on which she knocks reveal seniors who are lonely or afraid, on the verge of self-neglect. Her clients typically have no family in the area and are cut off from the world by some physical ailment that prevents them from doing what they used to do.

Or she sees people like Rose, who are overwhelmed by the task of looking after someone else. "Often times they need somebody to go in and say, 'It's OK, you're doing the best you can.' Or someone going in and saying, 'Your mother is dying, how about calling hospice?'"

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: [email protected]