Exterior of the New York Armenian Home

After 70 Years, the New York Armenian Home Closes, Merging with NJ Facility

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By Katrina Shakarian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

FLUSHING, N.Y. — Tucked between large, nondescript apartment blocks on a stretch of 45th Avenue in Flushing, Queens, stands a three-story federal-style brick house. It’s situated on the edge of just over an acre of land dotted with trees and park benches painted in the red, blue and orange of the Armenian flag. Since 1954, this building has been the location of New York’s only residential facility for Armenian seniors, the New York Armenian Home.

A bench outside the Home

“In the autumn of their years,” recounted Jerry Bezdikian, “residents experienced the peace and contentment of living amongst their own. Being served food that they had been accustomed to their entire lives, and even being able to enjoy Armenian cultural events, as well as regular religious services.”

Bezdikian, a New York-based photographer, entertained residents with his kanun, a string instrument, on weekly visits to the home where his aunt was a resident.

On April 14, the Home discharged its last resident as it prepares to close its doors permanently. Residents have been relocated to similar facilities in the area.

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“As the Armenian community in the New York City tristate area developed and thrived, the needs of our families have changed as well, and there is now a need for a more up-to-date facility with modern amenities,” wrote the Home’s Executive Director Jenny Akopyan in an open letter on its website. “In keeping with the expectations of our community, our Board of Directors made a decision for the relocation and upgrade of the New York Armenian Home.”

At the Home’s gardens

Two years ago, the Board of Directors entered into an agreement to sell the building at 137-31 45th Ave to Eastone Capital LLC for $50 million and began looking for a new location in Long Island.

“What we didn’t know was that it would be so hard to find a new piece of property,” said Neiri Amirian, chair of the nine-person board. “For us to look in the Long Island areas, those towns all need tax revenue.”

The Home’s non-profit status exempts it from paying real estate tax.

At the same time, the Armenian Nursing and Rehabilitation Center (ANRC), a skilled nursing facility, was seeking to upgrade its facility on its three-and-a-half-acre property in Emerson, NJ.

“They had the land and no money, we had the money and no land,” said Amirian.

Topics: New York

As a result, the New York Armenian Home, Inc. and ANRC have agreed to enter into a joint venture, for which they are currently finalizing the legal paperwork. The sale of the Flushing home will close in August, and part of the proceeds will finance the partnership.

“We’re going to be establishing a new non-profit company that each side will have participation in. And, we are currently talking with the Hackensack Meridian Health Network to be the developer, to build the new building, and also to manage the building going forward once it’s completed,” explained Khoren Bandazian, secretary of ANRC’s Board of Directors.

According to Bandazian, construction on the New Jersey property will begin within the next nine months and is expected to be completed 18 months later.

The current facility will be demolished and replaced with a new building on an adjacent portion of the property. Construction will take place in phases so that current residents are not displaced.

Siranoush Sanossian

The new facility will incorporate both skilled nursing and assisted living models, as well as the Armenian spirit of both homes.

“Both Boards are in unanimous agreement that we’re not going to lose the Armenian-ness of the Home. It’s very important to everyone,” said Bandazian.

There will be an Armenian chapel on the premises with regular visits from local clergy, and Armenian food will be served to residents who want it.

The partnership between the new non-profit and Hackensack Meridian Health Network promises to open up new avenues for elder care in the Armenian community. Bandazian discussed the possibility of establishing a home healthcare program, where elderly can stay in their homes with the help of visiting health aides. Historically, ANRC has had neither the resources nor the ability to implement such programming on its own.

On a rainy Friday afternoon in April, not long after the last resident was discharged, I visited Akopyan and Amirian in the Flushing Home, where they described the factors behind the Board’s decision to sell the property: a decline in the number of residents, evolving demands for care, the outdated facility, and a shrinking donor pool.

According to Akopyan, the census has been decreasing for years. While the facility is licensed for 79 beds, the number of residents has not exceeded 70 since she began working there in 1996.

The Armenian Home is an adult care facility providing geriatric custodial care, not a nursing home with medical services. In its early days, most residents were self-sufficient and the facility had the air of a retirement community.

“I remember a resident that lived here and used to have a part time job in the city, Kirkor Goybasyan,” said Akopyan. “He was a terzak [tailor]; he was doing alterations on clothing. So, every day he would have breakfast here, take a sandwich with him for lunch and go about his work, and come back by 5 o’clock for dinner,” she said.

Over the years, however, a needier demographic began seeking residency at the Home, such as seniors who were wheelchair bound and in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The facility was neither licensed nor equipped to serve this population, although Akopyan admitted that by hiring additional health aides and seeking waivers from the Department of Health, they often accepted such residents to stay afloat.

“The demand for a facility like ours was decreasing, whereas the demand for a facility that would have more abilities than ours, like borderline nursing facility and assisted living, that’s where most of the demand was coming from,” she said.

The Board considered applying for additional licenses to broaden the scope of its care and potentially boost its census. However, in order to qualify to provide enhanced care, the facility would have to undergo significant renovations such as making bathrooms wide enough for wheelchairs.

“The current thinking for any kind of medical and senior living is very different from what this place looks like,” said Amirian.  “The amount of money we have in our endowment funds was nowhere near enough to renovate this place and make it more acceptable and desirable for Armenians to come and stay here. The building is old enough that it’s not worth renovating,” she explained.

The Home supplemented residential rates ranging from $2,000 to $4,000 monthly, which Amirian and Akopyan both described as under market to remain affordable for the community, with a patchwork of fundraising activities such as picnics, an annual Christmas Card, and money left behind in wills.

Eventually, donations, too, would decline. Akopyan recalled contributions decreasing in half after 9/11, when the economy experienced a recession.

“Financially, we’ve been operating in the red for years,” said Amirian soberly.

Against that backdrop, she considers a joint venture with ANRC the last best hope.

“It’s not an ideal situation for people who’ve lived in New York and people are very disappointed and unhappy that we will no longer have a presence here, at least not in the near future,” admitted Amirian. “But in general, it’s a good path because it benefits both communities. Both New York and New Jersey will have some place for Armenian elderly people,” she said.

The shuttering of the Home has generated strong reactions from the local Armenian community.

“From the community, I have been hearing dismay and dissatisfaction. Many are inconvenienced,” said Lucine Tegnazian, a resident of Bayside, Queens.

Over the years, Tegnazian visited the Home to support residents with her own children through their Sunday school, as part of the Daughters of Vartan, and attended its fundraising picnics.

“With the closing of the Home, it is highly unlikely that our ever-growing population of elder Armenians in the New York City area will ever be able to experience the safety, security, and comfort that the Armenian Home had provided to our previous generations of elders,” said Jerry Bezdikian, whose aunt was a resident.

According to Akopyan, since 1980, 1,293 people have resided at the Flushing Home. Many of their names were logged into slim and now aging notebooks by hand, and typed onto index cards that are filed between powder blue dividers in a long storage container.

Newsletters published by the Home over the years provide a glimpse of the lives that converged there like John Sarian, a pianist and vocalist of Armenian music who taught at city colleges, and Paul Sagsoorian, a Word War II veteran who became an illustrator at local advertising agencies and of Armenian school books. There was Edward Bolsetzian, a professional tool and die maker, Henry Sanossian, who married his wife, Alice, at the Holy Cross Armenian Church in 1950, and Irene Kasbarian who was 8 months old when her family immigrated to the U.S. from Istanbul in 1920.

The Home was notably a final destination for survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 such as Perouz Kalousdian from Kharpert (Harput), Charlotte Kechejian from Nigde, and Arshaluys Dadir from Shabin-Karahisar, all locations in modern day Turkey.

In fact, the Home was founded as a refuge for the elderly of a new Armenian community in America, most of whom had fled state violence in the Ottoman Empire, beginning with the Hamidian massacres in the 1890s and culminating with the Armenian Genocide in 1915.

At the turn of the 20th century, Armenian immigration to the United States grew from a trickle to a stream. According to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, just under 1,000 Armenians were admitted to the U.S. in 1900, and roughly 10,000 were admitted in 1921.

In the 1920s, a member of this fledgling community, Siranoush Sanossian, recognized the need for an institution to house its elderly. She enlisted a group of women from the Holy Cross Armenian Church in Washington Heights, and eventually the broader community, in a grassroots effort to make it a reality.

That campaign culminated with the incorporation of the Armenian Welfare Association and the opening of the New York Armenian Home at its first location in Elmhurst, Queens in 1948. The Home would relocate within Elmhurst once more before the purchase of its permanent location in Flushing in 1954, where it would transition from being run by volunteers to being a fully professional and state certified operation.

The Armenian Welfare Association was officially renamed the New York Armenian Home, Inc. in 2000.

Its founding was a decades long labor of love by New York City’s Armenian community. From the $117,000 deposit raised by churchgoers for the first location in Elmhurst, to the Astoria Ladies’ Auxiliary who organized a dinner dance and picnic to raise the money for an oil burner installation in the second location. From every able-bodied community member under sixty who piled the Home’s furnishings into trucks bound for the final location in Flushing, to the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised to modify and expand that facility — the founding of the home was an extensive grassroots effort undertaken and achieved by the local community.

“The Home served as a symbol of the spirit and will of Armenians in the diaspora to properly and respectfully care for our elders,” said Jerry Bezdikian.

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