When members of the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society held their holiday party in December, local resident Theresa Barraz stopped by for some snacks and entertainment.
That was the last they heard of her until receiving a call from the NYPD in June.
Barraz, 83, had died months earlier in her Woodhaven apartment but no one noticed.
Police discovered Barraz on June 19 after being contacted to do a wellness check. Unable to locate any contacts for friends or family in her apartment, they spotted the flyer for the holiday party and reached out to the group.
“It was just heartbreaking,” said Ed Wendell, president of Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society. “We realized we need to work together to start something and check on seniors.”
Wendell and members of the Woodhaven Residents Block Association are planning to launch a program that would have volunteers check in with local seniors on a daily basis.
“There’s a lot of seniors, it’s a growing population in Woodhaven,” said Stephen Forte, president of the block association. “People are left with their empty nests and they have no one to watch over them and help them when they need it.”
Forte said some people make it a point to assist their neighbors with tasks such as shoveling their walks after a snowfall.
But there are others, like Barraz, who fall through the cracks because they never ask for help.
She mostly kept to herself during the meetings and walking tours the group hosts, Wendell said. Barraz was quiet but not unfriendly and had declined to provide any emergency contact information. It also isn’t unusual for some members, especially seniors, to skip meetings, he said.
The Medical Examiner could not determine a cause of death but concluded that Barraz had been dead for several months.
“Social isolation is such a serious health problem,” said Beth Finkel, state director of AARP New York. “Our research showed nearly one in five Americans 65 and older are socially isolated. We are trying to build awareness of this issue.”
Finkel said there are some warning signs, such as retreating from previous activities, allowing homes to deteriorate and ignoring personal hygiene. It often happens when a health issue prevents people from driving or being more active.
“It only takes two minutes to check-in on someone every day,” said Wendell.
The Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society will host a memorial service for Barraz on Aug. 23 with the help of N.F. Walker Funeral Home and Neir’s Tavern.
“We didn’t want her going to Potter’s Field,” said Wendell. “Theresa may have died alone, but she will not be remembered that way.”