She was a visionary who ushered in a new age of care for senior citizens.
Ellen Camerieri, who helmed Riverdale Senior Services as executive director for more than two decades, died from complications from a brain tumor, June 14. She was 82.
“Ellen always held Riverdale Senior Services in her heart,” said Betty Begley, RSS’ current executive assistant. “She will be missed.”
Camerieri spearheaded growth at Riverdale Senior Services, located at The Century on Netherland Avenue, both fiscally and by program expansion. That included a transportation program which “enabled more frail people to be able to get here on a daily basis,” said Andria Cassidy, an RSS deputy director who worked with Camerieri her last five years with the program.
She also developed a health promotion program staffed by a registered nurse as well as an adult day activities program for cognitively impaired elders.
“She was an ageless 82,” Cassidy said. “She was a good boss and a good mentor, and then she became a good friend for her staff, who really respected her and loved her.”
The health promotion program “was a very important component to add to the center because it provides health services, albeit basic health services, for a very at-risk population,” Cassidy added.
The program “very frequently is a preventative measure” because, in addition to basic services, it provides health education and counseling.
“Many of the things Ellen began are now considered standard in facilities such as ours,” Cassidy said. “She was very progressive for her time.”
It was Camerieri's talent as a leader that enabled her to lay the foundation for programs that were well ahead of the curve.
“She really had a theory that good staffing excellence was something that should be reached for,” Cassidy said. “She really began that process in many ways when other senior centers were still playing bingo.”
Riverdale Senior Services also made huge fiscal strides during Camerieri’s tenure. Its budget grew five-fold, Begley said, to $1.25 million.
Prior to joining RSS, Camerieri worked in community programs for the elderly at the nonprofit Community Service Society of New York, Begley said, and at the Jamaica Service Program for Older Adults, a social service agency that sponsors five senior centers in southeast Queens. There Camerieri developed senior volunteering programs and assisting crime victims.
Camerieri also taught social work and gerontology courses as an adjunct professor at the Fordam University’s Graduate School of Social Service, Yeshiva University, Iona College, and the College of New Rochelle.
U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel appointed Camerieri to serve as a delegate to the 2005 White House conference on aging, Begley said, where, ever the advocate for the aged, she and others voiced frustration on the complexity of Medicare’s new prescription drug benefit, according to a 2006 Internal Medicine News story.
Camerieri received the Riverdale Neighborhood House’s Good Neighbor Award in 2006, and the Interfaith Caregiver’s Award in 2003. She also served on the board of the Bon Secours Charity Health System in the Bronx.
As Riverdale Senior Services enters its 45th year, “We are sad to enter it without Ellen,” Cassidy said. “She could be very firm and gentle at the same time. She had a great smile.”
Camerieri graduated from Notre Dame College just ahead of its merger with St. John’s University, before earning a master’s in social work from Hunter College a year later.
Camerieri lived in Yonkers with husband Rocco, a retired math and chemistry teacher, for years. She went into caretaker mode in 1994, Cassidy said, after a surgery paralyzed him.
“You never heard her complain about how she needed to care for him,” Cassidy said. “He was very independent. He was very similar to Ellen in that way. There was tremendous respect amongst the two of them, and understanding.”
Rocco died in 2008.
But Camerieri was more than just a loving wife and a great leader at RSS, Cassidy said. She traveled to Singapore last Christmas to spend time with her son, Chris, and grandchildren Madeline and Claudia.
“She loved being a grandmother,” Cassidy said.
She also was a great speaker.
“She could just get up and talk, without notes,” Cassidy said. “Everybody always admired that about her. I think that came from her sincerity. She was a confident person. She didn’t have a lot of vanity. Her ego was strong. She was very real.
“When you sat with her, there was no hidden agenda. What you heard was who Ellen was, so the trust was always there, later, as a friend.”
Camerieri was preceeded in death by her parents and siblings, Martin, John, William, Flurry and Lorraine.
“She could overcome adversity very well,” Cassidy said. “She probably treated her illness the same way, which was very short. She didn’t want to make a big deal of it.”