Transitioning with the help of other women

Published on 1/20/2012

Five days a week for most of her adult life, Joan Herman took the 6:34 a.m. train out of Northport to her job at a Manhattan pension fund. She would arrive home after 7 at night, cook dinner, help the kids with homework, spend time with her husband, Bob, and get ready for the next day’s commute. Weekends were filled with family activities and little, if any, “me” time.

In 2008, when she was 62, Herman opted not to move to North Carolina when her job was transferred there. It was time, she decided, to join the ranks of the retired. The prospect, though exciting, was daunting. Other than plans to travel with Bob, she had no agenda for her newfound freedom.

“My life had been my family and my career,” she says. “I’d never had time to make friendships with women outside of work. I needed, as they say, to get a life!”

Herman found that new life when she joined The Transition Network, referred to by its 225 members on Long Island as TTN. The networking group is for women 50 and older or, as they fondly describe it, “50 and forward.” TTN, which originated in New York City more than a decade ago and now has 14 chapters nationwide, connects women who are contemplating retirement or are already retired; actively parenting or becoming empty nesters; widowed, single or divorced.

“When someone no longer has her 9-to-5 routine, she’s often not sure how to fill her day,” says Great Neck resident Marlene Gerber, 71, chair of TTN’s Long Island chapter. “You can feel lost. But TTN gives you a tremendous sense of belonging.”

The Long Island chapter has several programs: It hosts eight to 10 events each year for all of its members. The meetings feature lectures by prominent women, such as Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who recently addressed the group.

But at the core of TTN is its “peer groups,” made up of a half dozen or so members who get together based on a shared interest. The latest is the Caring Collaborative, a group designed to offer women support and education to help them stay well through the aging process.

Herman belongs to five peer groups, including a book club, two day-trip groups, and a discussion group called Can We Talk? The Long Island chapter has more than 40 peer groups, including The Golf Group, Bookworms, East End Divas, Singles in Suburbia and Shutterbugs.

“Being part of TTN keeps me out in the larger world,” says Herman, who credits the organization with saving her life twice — first, by creating a vibrant network of friends and activities, and second, by being there for her when her husband passed away suddenly in 2009.

That kind of support is what makes the network so special, according to Nancy Reedy, 70, of Wantagh, a member of The Originals peer group, made up of the first eight TTN Long Island members. The group has celebrated weddings and the births of grandchildren, and sustained each other through the deaths of parents, spouses and, in the case of member Ellen Schmidt, a daughter, who passed away in 2004 leaving behind two young children.

“I spend two days a week visiting my grandsons, but the other days, my activities with TTN give me something to look forward to,” says Schmidt, 75, of West Hempstead, who was widowed in 1969 and raised her four children on her own. She’s part of several peer groups, including a travel group that she accompanied to Chicago, Vancouver and other destinations. “I do something almost every week through TTN. It keeps me healthy.”

Reedy adds, “We don’t let ourselves be identified by life-altering events, but we’re there for one another as we strive to overcome them or revel in them.”

Network members are committed to helping not only each other but their communities. Patti Polyn, 64, a retired social worker who chairs the volunteer committee, says one of her favorite events is the annual Prom Boutique, where donated gowns are given to teens who can’t afford to buy their own dresses.

“I feel privileged to have found an organization where women have the chance to not only find new friends but to work on important projects as well,” the Merrick resident says.

Polly Hammer, one of the chapter’s most active members, volunteers with Child Abuse Prevention Services (capsli .org). She also teaches anti-

bullying programs in schools. She connected with the nonprofit at a Network volunteer fair two years ago.

She also looks forward to volunteering each year at the Prom Boutique. “What a wonderful feeling to see the happiness and excitement in the faces of these young girls as they twirl and whirl in their new prom dresses, knowing that we were able to make this happen for them,” says Hammer, 69, a retired florist from Huntington.

Hammer is a member of the chapter’s newest initiative, the Caring Collaborative. “When women connect with other women, we stay healthier and happier,” says Roslyn resident Carol Lioz, the Caring Collaborative co-chair.

To date, 35 Network members on Long Island have signed up to be part of the Collaborative. The program consists of several parts, including seminars on health and wellness topics such as acupuncture, nutrition and exercise; a confidential Member Information Exchange known as MIX, in which Caring Collaborative members who have experience with a specific medical issue can speak to a member who needs information related to that diagnosis; and a Health & Wellness Resource Directory.

Collaborative co-chair Rhonda Phillips of Plainview used the exchange program last year, when she found herself suffering from an eye problem. She contacted Marie Constantin, the coordinator of the Member Information Exchange program, who connected her with a half dozen other members who had faced a similar health issue. “It was so reassuring to get input from women who’d had the same experience,” says Phillips, who turns 61 on Sunday. “It really put my mind at ease.”

Caring Collaborative members offer not only advice but help when needed through the “time bank” program. For example, when a member has a short-term, nonemergency caregiving need such as a ride to a doctor’s appointment, or someone to walk her dog because of a an illness, other Collaborative members step in to assist. The woman who provides a hand gets credit in the time bank and can request the same from another member at a future date.

“At some point, most of us have needs both large and small related to aging, and not everyone has family nearby to fill the gap,” explains Caring Collaborative co-chair Lioz, 64. “It’s like insurance.”

Adds Collaborative member and Floral Park resident Judy Brambrut, 68, who was widowed five years ago, just after her retirement, “Even if you have a husband or grown children, they aren’t necessarily available every moment.”

Gerber, TTN Long Island’s chair, is thrilled that the Caring Collaborative program has become part of the chapter’s offerings. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to serve our members as their health care needs evolve,” she says. “It fits our mission perfectly: We are a true sisterhood, and we’re there for each other as we enter this new time in our lives.”