By Samanta Costa
Photography by Susan Beard Design (susanbearddesign.com) and courtesy of S.O.W.N.
(The name and details used in this anecdote are completely fictional and represent an example of the common story we are seeing in Philadelphia today.)
It’s a tale many of us have heard before.
“Peggy” retired from her crossing guard job and began thinking about joining her local senior center to get more involved with her community while enjoying her retirement. But it all comes to a screeching halt when the Department of Human Services calls to say her daughter abandoned her granddaughter. Within 24 hours, she has to decide if she wants to accept guardianship or allow her granddaughter to be placed into foster care.
Naturally, she wants to take care of her grandchild, but with it comes challenges. The child has probably been neglected up to this point. She might have to be enrolled in school. Meanwhile, Peggy is faced with overwhelming emotions about her own adult child who abandoned her grandchild. She thought she did an OK job raising her daughter, but the drug addiction won out in this case. She’s faced with new decisions, responsibilities and has to come to terms that her life is now changed forever. Where does she go? Who does she turn to? Someone at the Department of Human Services suggests she contact the Supportive Older Women’s Network (SOWN). She makes the call and reaches out for help.
SOWN’s Founding Story
SOWN was established with a $300 donation in 1984 by Executive Director and Founder, Merle Drake, MSS, LCSW, who was just 27 at the time. She never thought it would become a lifelong commitment, according to the organization’s founding story video. At the time, she interned at a senior center, where she noticed that many, if not all, of the women who came for bingo or a meal did not know each other’s names. There was an overwhelming sense of isolation, grief, and fear.
“We support older women in ways that strengthen their ability to persevere with supports that restore their dignity, self respect, and value, in a society that sadly and mistakenly treats them as invisible,” Merle says in the video.
Marypat Tracy, MSW, LCSW, Acting Executive Director and Director of Programs, got started with SOWN more than 20 years ago. She has a master’s in social work with a specialty in gerontology. You could say aging is her passion. The concept that older women should not age alone, and that they need people on this journey is what drew her to join SOWN.
“Right now with the opioid crisis, there is unfortunately a growing group of people who, for the most part, never thought they would be involved in any service organization. And then bam, one day the need is there. They don’t reflect all of our folks, but reflect a certain slice of them,” Marypat said.
These are women who thought their retirement might be filled with going on trips to Atlantic City, but instead they’re faced with school drop-offs while juggling their own physical health issues, Marypat explained.
What Does the Path to Support Look Like?
The staff at SOWN walk women through the journey of aging, like the example of “Peggy,” a grandmother who needs resources. Often times, they will start with one-on-one counseling, or ask “Peggy” if she would like to be part of a group to learn how other grandmothers are dealing with raising children for a second time.
Other older women might learn of SOWN through their place of worship, senior center, health center, or library.
The path might start with a support group so they do not feel alone in their situation, Marypat said. This is where the first step of healing begins. People like “Peggy” learn what to do with their feelings about their daughter, learn what resources are available, what to do legally about their granddaughter, or find out how to navigate elementary schools. It’s a place where she can vent. After all, she thought she was retiring.
People impacted by SOWN realize that becoming part of this community means that someone else finally “gets it,” and understands their journey. They might say, “I don’t have to feel ashamed anymore,” or “someone is there to listen to me,” and, “Someone is going to be there to give me advice,” Marypat said.
SOWN holds 1,060 support groups each year in 25 locations with completely free services. The organization estimates they reach about 800 women and about 500 of them are impacted by SOWN’s outreach services each year.
“We are gathering older women in natural places where they were meeting, such as libraries, church basements, and senior centers,” Marypat said. “We are bringing them together and training peers to facilitate support groups. It’s not just about the services, but empowering the women within the group to be leaders. And that’s a really powerful piece of it.”
GrandFamily Resource Center
This program was developed in 2006 to offer a lifeline to grandparents raising grandchildren in Philadelphia. People benefit from individual counseling, group counseling, information and referrals to other resources, parenting education, opportunities to mentor other grandparent caregivers, advocacy, and access to SOWN’s Philly Families Eat Smart program .
The results speak for themselves. All of the grandchildren involved in SOWN’s GrandFamily Resource Center continue to live with their grandparents, with no run-ins with the juvenile justice system or adolescent pregnancies. The program has also helped to ensure that all children involved don’t just stay in school and attend regularly, but 100 percent of high school seniors are on track to graduate on time.
Counseling for Homebound Adults: Teleconference Support Groups
SOWN is the only Pennsylvania provider of teleconferencing mental health services for older adults. Older adults who can’t get to and from support groups can connect by calling-in to their weekly group, which is facilitated by a licensed clinical social worker. The need for these services came about roughly 25 years ago. There are typically five to six women in any given group call, and it provides a sense of anonymity for those who are afraid to speak in-person about disabilities they may have. People often step away from the call with a sense of empowerment thanks to not only the social worker, but their peers.
Philly Families Eat Smart
SOWN developed the Philly Families Eat Smart program in 2012. It focuses on health, wellness and physical fitness of grandparent-led families. Services include education programs that teach healthy cooking tips and the role of emotions and food, access to fresh produce, fitness events, and access to computers to find local markets with healthy food options.
Parkinson’s Care Partners Support Groups
SOWN works with The Parkinson Council and Penn Medicine to provide this support program to older women and men caring for family members with Parkinson’s disease. Often times, it’s their spouse. The group, started in 2015, allows caregivers to connect with others who are living a similar lifestyle. Peer validation and support is combined with professionally led discussions on reducing stress and other tips. It’s just another lifeline that helps elders cope with being a caregiver.
What’s Next for SOWN?
The evolving role of a caregiver means that supportive programs must adapt, too. This year, SOWN is rolling out their newest program, Philly Families Read Together. The literacy program seeks to improve literacy skills for children ages 3 to 8, as well as the grandparents raising them. People seeking these services will have access in local libraries, daycares, and health centers. Children’s literacy will focus on making sure children are up to speed on reading and using media for learning. For grandparents, digital literacy is one of the bigger issues that people face when raising grandchildren. Many grandparents still expect to see a physical report card, without understanding that they have to log-on to the school’s website to access their grandchild’s grades, homework, and more. SOWN is aiming to eliminate that literacy roadblock by teaching them how to navigate computers and tablets.
To learn more about SOWN, volunteer, or donate, go to SOWN.org.