Seniors helping seniors.
It’s the philosophy that Umbrella of the Capital District was built on 26 years ago and it remains the organization’s motto today, with senior handypersons working on house repairs and projects for fellow seniors who can’t.
“I think the workforce is maybe a little bit more sensitive to the issues in later life than maybe a 29-year-old would be. So the fact that they’re retired puts them on common ground with the customers,” said Ron Byrne, director and founder of Umbrella, which is based in Schenectady.
Early in his career, the Chicago native worked as a freelance photographer and videographer. However, his career changed completely in the 1990s after his mother fell and broke her hip, femur, tibia and collarbone.
“It all sort of stemmed from that,” Byrne said. “I had to go to Chicago and see what [needed] to be done in order for her to ever come home again. It was fairly daunting.”
While there, and during the months and years of his mother’s recovery, Byrne noticed that many of her retired friends stepped up to help with shopping for groceries, mowing the lawn and providing home maintenance. It sparked the idea for Umbrella.
He founded the organization in 1995, just two years after his mother fell. For an annual fee, Byrne and a small team of handypersons began serving homeowners, referred to as members, who were elderly and/or disabled. The residents were mostly in Schenectady and needed help mowing their lawns or with simple repairs. Word spread thanks to local media and from the praise of other members, and the organization grew fairly steadily, expanding to serve homeowners in four counties.
Today, there are about 500 members and 147 handypeople who do thousands of jobs each year. Members pay an annual fee based on their federal income, and pay $15 per hour for handyman services and repairs.
Umbrella’s services have expanded over the years. The group provides access to contractors for plumbing, electrical and other services, and has an around-the-clock emergency line for heating and other emergencies.
“We drive people to the doctors and we’ll provide companionship to people who are kinda lonely and [provide] house cleaning. We even do some cooking now and then for people who need help with cooking, grocery shopping. … We have around-the-clock help for people in emergencies, and all of it was an evolution really. [We] just started out with a Mr. Fix-It approach.”
The hope is that these relatively low-cost services help seniors who want to age in place.
Andy Foster is one such member. The 88-year-old, who previously worked in public relations at Ellis Hospital, first moved to his Niskayuna home with his wife, Lilian Jean Foster, more than 40 years ago. In 2015, he realized they could use a bit of help around the house with simple tasks such as weeding and taking screens in and out of windows.
As the years have progressed, they’ve also needed help with housecleaning and other tasks like moving hoses and anything too low or high.
“We’re very fortunate in having access to something like Umbrella,” Foster said.
Through the organization he met Robert Kordrupel, a Schenectady resident who has worked for Umbrella for the past six years, doing everything from electrical repairs to yardwork.
“I can tell you unequivocally that if not for Bob, I wouldn’t be in this house,” Foster said of Kordrupel. “He has those innate technical senses that I don’t have … and he’ll see something that I don’t see.”
Kordrupel retired from the United States Postal Service after 32 and a half years and started working for Umbrella a few days a week.
“I think it’s a great service. I hope it’s still going to be around when I get old and gray,” Kordrupel said.
The two have gotten to know each other over the years, which happens with each member Kordrupel works for. Even after a job is done, he’ll talk with the homeowners for a bit.
“There are relationships in Umbrella that go back a decade,” Byrne said. “The fact is, no matter what tasks you do you wind up getting to know the person pretty well. And they connect to them, I think, on a personal level, just from the sheer act of going out and seeing the person over and over again. There’s a real strong connection.”
People who work or volunteer for Umbrella come from a wide range of backgrounds and skill sets. Many are looking for a way to continue to connect with others and the satisfaction of meaningful work.
“I think it’s very fulfilling. When you retire from whatever you did, I think people miss that a lot. Their work in some ways is a measure of their value of themselves. So when they retire, they still want to have that experience. It gives them a fulfilling thing to do, but it doesn’t take over their life,” Byrne said.
Of course, it all came to a halt during the early days of the pandemic.
“It stopped it pretty much because … the number one at-risk group in the pandemic was the elderly,” Byrne said.
Employees and volunteers worked mostly outside and didn’t start most indoor projects until after the vaccine rollout began.
“Things are feeling a lot more upbeat than they were a year ago at this time, gradually so. It just has been escalating slowly,” Byrne said.
One of the greatest challenges the organization faces now is finding more handypersons.
“The thing that was the most difficult about the pandemic was it’s become much more difficult now to find people who want to do the work, who want to get out there and help people, because of the uncertainty of it all,” Byrne said.
“[When] this pandemic thing gets in the rearview mirror, I think it will make Umbrella’s ability to help seniors exponentially easier, and more effective and more timely, because it has been a drain on the delivery of services, there’s no doubt about it. We need more people but I understand their caution.”
For information about Umbrella, visit theumbrella.org.
Year Founded: 1995
Areas Served: Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga, Rensselaer counties
Mission: Membership in Umbrella helps provide aging homeowners the ability to stay in their homes safely and with dignity for as long as possible. To elderly homeowners, this means they can afford to take care of their homes. To retired handypersons, it means they are putting their skills and experience to good use. And to some family members, it means being able to take care of their loved ones, despite living far away.
Note from director: “If there’s anybody out there who wants to help, we welcome their interests. Come on down if you think it’s what you want to do. If it is, we’ll put you to work,” said Ron Byrne, director of Umbrella of the Capital District.