Ethel Paley is native New Yorker who in her early life worked as a part of WAVES, the women’s branch of the United States Naval Reserve during World War II, before studying at Barnard College and Columbia University where she received a Master’s degree in social work. She has spent most of her later life dedicated to FRIA, and organization that seeks to ensure seniors receive proper care, services, and treatment from nursing homes around New York City. Ms. Paley was the group’s first director and served as a steadfast and hard-working volunteer and board member until its closing in 2011. Her daughter was present for the interview.
Interview by Lara Cochran
Funnily enough, it was never my intention to begin work with FRIA.
I had received a degree in Economics and American History at Barnard when I was younger and eventually, after I realized I would not be able to do much work for people without the formality of a social work degree, I went back to Columbia for my Masters. That was when I began my job search.
It was the late 1960s and early ‘70s when I took a few jobs around the city after graduating with my second degree. I had, and still have, a great passion for people. All that I was really looking for was a job that allowed me to work with citizens in New York who needed help that they weren’t being given. At that time, though, there was a huge outbreak in the media reporting on nursing home mistreatment and abuse of residents. It was all especially bad in New York. There were fires and reports of disrespect, but the biggest thing was that these people were actually stealing from the residents. Jewelry and furniture even! It was preposterous how they were getting away with what they were.
Eventually it got to be so bad that the federal government could not ignore it for much longer. They decided to award a sum of money to a woman named Rose Dobrev, who had spoken out about the need for better eldercare and protection against mistreatment. You have to understand though, that this was just money. They did not offer a plan, they did not offer any other form of assistance. They handed her money and expected some sort of result. That was about the same time that I heard of FRIA.
Well, it wasn’t FRIA to begin with. It was an idea.
I did not meet Rose until years later but those that she had already met and worked with were trying to establish an organization that would act as an ally for families of nursing home residents. That was almost all I knew when I went for an interview at an organization that didn’t yet have a name, just a mission and a strong will to see it through. Eventually we settled on “Friends and Relatives of the Institutionalized Aged” – that social-worky enough for you? It was a long name which became so tiresome to say that we shortened it to FRIA and stuck with the nickname until its end. I started with them in the mid-70s and worked as a paid staff, a volunteer, and a Board Member until their end in 2011.
Many people, when first hearing about FRIA and its objective, assume we were a group that infiltrated and investigated nursing home facilities, undercover. That we would quickly and single-handedly stop any mistreatment ourselves. I wish. However, that’s not the way institutions operate.
There are rules and regulations to be followed, laws to be abided by, and heads of power to appeal to. What FRIA focused on was information. We made sure that we had all of the updated information regarding nursing home residents’ rights, the nursing homes’ rights, whether or not a specific home had complaints against it, and more. We needed to have this information in order to be able to give it to the families who were worried about their relatives living in homes. Most of those that needed help simply didn’t have access to this knowledge or could not find it on their own. We were the messengers.
That’s why we started FRIA’s hotline. It was just one of our projects, but probably the most productive thing that we did. Individuals and families were able to call in and discuss an issue that they had, ask questions about what they could do to right a situation, or how they could get better care for their relatives. I answered calls over the entire three and a half decades I worked at FRIA and it always seemed to be the place where I felt most helpful. I felt I had a purpose and was able to accomplish FRIA’s goal in small ways with each call.
Along with the hotline we had several other projects like our family meetings. These were almost like support groups for families facing issues in nursing homes but focused more on planning active ways that individuals could help their relative rather than just being a space for encouraging one another. We would meet wherever we could find a space.
Sometimes it would be a big group and sometimes it would be all six FRIA staff members with two family members in need of direct assistance. The problem with these kinds of groups,
Actually, with this kind of work in general, is that, too often, once an individual’s personal situation is corrected or problem is fixed they tend to disappear from the fight. They needed help and they got it. Not that I could blame them, but it made half of the job revolve around finding new waves of people to help advocate. Finding anyone to advocate for the, almost secretly disenfranchised, nursing home residents was a constant challenge. The seniors we were assisting were hidden away in homes that were abusing their power and no one could see it. No one was allowed in. All we could do was empower those family members, that felt something wasn’t right, to follow their instinct and demand the care and professionality they and their relatives were entitled to.
It was a good and long run. FRIA opened in 1976 and closed in 2011. It was the money that did us in. We had the government’s blessing when the problems in nursing homes were all over the newspaper but once they were nicely hidden away again the funding stopped coming in. We had a few sponsors but, you know, eventually they all realized that the group advocating for seniors’ rights who has been getting a donation for twenty years was still asking for one. They lost faith and kindly denied the requests. It’s a fight that needs to continue but it’s a fight that involves the people and their drive to right wrongs, to work through all of the unnecessary bureaucracy to find the issues and the solutions. I think that FRIA was a start but its up to others to keep it going, to stay invested, and to advocate for those that cannot stand up for themselves.
This interview was part of a series on unheard voices by Fordham students in Prof. Chris Rhomberg 2018 Urban Poverty class on behalf of Labor Arts and the National Writers United Service Organization.More at laborarts.org.