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Ethel Paley, Champion of Nursing Home Patients, Dies at 99

Ethel Paley, Champion of Nursing Home Patients, Dies at 99

Ethel Paley, a social worker who for 35 years was at the forefront of helping nursing home patients and their families navigate the labyrinthine health care system, redress hidden abuses in treatment and lobby for systemic solutions, died on Nov. 18 at her home in Manhattan. She was 99.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter Eliza Paley.

From the organization’s inception at the height of the scandals over nursing home care in New York in 1976 until it went broke in 2011 after the recession, Ms. Paley dedicated her career to Friends and Relatives of the Institutionalized Aged, a nonprofit organization of which she was the founding executive director.

Even after she stepped down from that post in 1979, she continued to serve the agency and her elderly peers for decades, well into her own advanced age, variously as president, board member, paid staff member and volunteer.

“Even though it was descriptive, our full name still reeked of a ‘social work’ look at the world,” Ms. Paley recalled in 2011, “so we eventually dropped it and just use Fria instead.”

The organization became a clearinghouse for the latest information on the rights of patients, the services to which they were entitled and the complaints that had been lodged against individual nursing homes in New York City.

Fria operated a telephone help line in English and Spanish to answer questions from nursing home residents, their friends and relatives and to guide them to other resources for assistance. Social work students were recruited to staff the line. They fielded often frantic calls about arbitrary and involuntary discharges and transfers from nursing homes and allegations of abuse, neglect, retaliation and racial, ethnic and religious discrimination.

“What Fria focused on was information,” Ms. Paley said last year in an interview for the WorkersWrite! Project of the National Writers Union. “We were the messengers.”

On the basis of the complaints and questions the group received, it proposed policy changes to government regulators to rectify or mitigate shortcomings in health care. Few comparable groups existed anywhere, she said.

Ms. Paley and others sought to marshal even more support for nursing home residents by organizing a network of groups whose agenda include geriatric health issues. That effort led to the formation of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving quality of care and quality of life for people in nursing homes, assisted living and other residential settings.

Ethel Louise Schneider was born on Oct. 8, 1920, in Manhattan to Herman and Ida (Fahrni) Schneider. Her father was a restaurateur, her mother a homemaker.

The family moved from Flushing, Queens, during the Depression to Willimantic, Conn. After graduating from high school there, she joined the Waves, the women’s branch of the Naval Reserve, in 1943 and served in Washington.

After World War II, she was admitted to Barnard College under the G.I. Bill and completed her bachelor’s degree in economics and American history in 1949. She later received a master’s in social work, focusing on community organizing, from Columbia University.

After graduating from Barnard, Ms. Paley worked for the New York City Housing Authority and directed the career office at the college, where she developed a program to help female graduates manage professional and family goals.

By the mid-1970s, she said, “I went for an interview at an organization that didn’t yet have a name, just a mission and a strong will to see it through.” It was the Friends and Relatives of the Institutionalized Aged, and she was hired as the first director.

Ms. Paley was president of the Women’s City Club of New York (now Women Creating Change) from 1989 to 1990. She received the L’Oreal Women of Worth Award in 2010 and was inducted into the Columbia School of Social Work Hall of Fame in 2014.

Her husband, Karl Paley, an internist and department head associated with Lenox Hill Hospital, died in 1993 in the couple’s Greenwich Village home. They had married in 1950.

In addition to their daughter Eliza, she is survived by another daughter, Claudia Paley; and a granddaughter.

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