Wellness checks on Woodhaven seniors 1

Theresa Barraz was found in her apartment after dying months earlier. A new idea from the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association would have volunteers calling seniors living alone to make sure they’re safe.

Nearly 30 people attended a service for Theresa Barraz last Thursday at N.F. Walker Funeral Home in Woodhaven.

Police found Barraz, a member of the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society, dead in her home in June, though she had died months earlier.

“It’s very sad because it didn’t have to be that way,” said Ed Wendell, executive director of the society.

As a response, the Woodhaven Residents’ Block Association is putting together a wellness check program for seniors in the area. “We can’t just shut our windows and doors every day,” said Steve Forte, president of the association. Last year, Forte’s aunt suffered a stroke and was on the floor for four days before anybody knew.

Under WRBA’s plan, volunteers might take two minutes out of their day and call a senior living alone, or a couple in which someone has dementia or a similar issue. There could also be an automated system wherein people could press a button to answer if they’re feeling fine. If there were no response, then there would be a follow-up.

Barraz, who was 82 or 83 at the time of her death, was drawn to the historical society meetings in part because of the refreshments. She also went on walking tours and would donate to the toy drive. She lived in an apartment overlooking the Wyckoff-Snedeker Cemetery on 96th Street. One of her favorite activities was watching the birds in the cemetery in the morning.

Barraz, who once told Wendell that she didn’t “have two thin dimes to rub together,” lived in a federally subsidized Section 8 apartment.

According to Wendell, she was friendly but usually stuck to herself. “She was a loner and I hate to say it but she was lonely,” Wendell said.

She attended the society meeting last December and admitted she wasn’t feeling well. There were no scheduled meetings in January and February and the notice about the March meeting came back as return to sender. In June, police called the society from her apartment. The only phone number they could find had been on the Christmas party flier. They also told Wendell it wouldn’t be worth coming in to identify Barraz because the body was past the point of being recognizable.

Members of the society offered donations so that Barraz wouldn’t be buried in a potter’s field. “This is what makes Woodhaven a great place,” said Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven), who was at the service. “This is what makes Woodhaven special.”

The Queens County public administrator informed Wendell that Barraz had some money in the bank. It turned out she had $73 more than what the service cost. In essence, she paid for her own cremation.

Barraz’s lonely death raised the question of how well we know each other. The neighbors we’ve lived next to for years, the people in the street we say hello to but don’t even know their names. The wellness checks would try to make sure that those living in the community don’t remain strangers.

“We want to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Wendell said.

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