Irene Zola, NYC Aging in Place Leader, Founder of LiLY, Dies at 78

Photo Credit: Erica Lansner / EricaLansnerPhotographer.Com

With great sadness, the LiLY organization (Lifeforce in Later Years) has announced the sudden and unexpected passing of LiLY’s founder and executive director, Irene Zola, who passed away on August 29 from complications due to Leukemia. She was 78 years old.


Ms. Zola’s organization, a model nonprofit group caring for elders – replicated in many parts of the US – has been serving Morningside Heights and West Harlem since 2009.

After witnessing the limitations of the care available to her mother, who lived in a nursing home facility, Zola brought a group of neighbors together to consider how they might help their neighbors remain in their apartments, even at advanced ages. Soon after launching a friendly visiting program, the volunteer-led group saw that most neighbors over 80 years had no family caregiver options and that emotional, social, and community connections were invaluable to improving living alone in the city. Over time, individualized and deep levels of care were complemented by social group programs and expansion into new neighborhoods. There are no fees for LiLY programs, but rather a committed group of staff, volunteers, local businesses, and medical partners who contribute to the work.

An early board member, Lois Freedman, reflects: “She designed a self-sustaining organization. Today’s older volunteers are tomorrow’s elders, and people of all ages have learned much about aging and its many challenges and rewards.”

For her work in community development, Irene was a CNN Hero and won an AARP Inspire Award in 2012. She has forged an innovative alternative model of care for an aging population that brings together neighbors, volunteers, elders and staff.

Irene has a long history of activism. She was involved in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and was one of the founding members of the Family Annex Nursery School. She was ahead of her time in many ways; she was among the first women to drive a taxi in NYC.


LiLY’s Board President, Jennifer Beisser, notes that Ms. Zola and the organization have been actively planning for its yearly fundraiser: “Legacies Awards Gala is an event she loved and celebrates incredible New Yorkers who make aging in NYC better. Donors, volunteers, and uptown neighbors come together with honorees including celebrities such as Rachael Ray (Legacies, 2023) and trailblazers in geriatric medicine, the arts, and other fields.”

The 2023 Gala, dedicated to Irene Zola, will be held on November 6, 2023, at Columbia University’s Low Library, 6-9 p.m. Information is available at, or call Genia Gould at 917-304-6213.

Zola is survived by her long-time partner John Hailu; her son Daniel, his wife and their two daughters; her four sisters; four nieces and nephews; and six great-nieces and great-nephews.


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