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Jewish Journal

Jewish Aging Crisis Looms

by Sharon Samber

August 1, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Is the American Jewish community prepared for the aging tidal wave? With the number of Jewish elderly expected to soar over the coming decade, leaders at the national and local levels realize they must move beyond traditional methods of caring for the elderly to develop new plans and policies.

Timing is critical. Many communities have been preparing to increase services to the elderly, but as baby boomers age and people live longer, there is an urgent need to expand services and to plan -- and to do it quickly.

The problem is especially acute in the Jewish community. An estimated 20 percent of American Jewry is 65 or older, a significantly higher proportion than among the general population, where the figure is around 13 percent. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showed that 920,000 Jewish Americans are at least 65 years of age.

As the issue of elder care becomes more prominent, however, the nation's economic crisis is expected to make things more difficult. Funding for social services is likely to be cut as priorities shift toward funding security and anti-terror activities.

The budget surplus has gone and everything has become tougher since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told Jewish community professionals last year at the United Jewish Communities (UJC) General Assembly.

There must be savings incentives, penalty-free withdrawals from retirement plans for long-term care and better ties between the public and private sectors, he said.

Looking to provide something of a road map for communities, UJC issued a guide that focuses on providing a "continuum of care," a comprehensive, client-oriented system of elder services.

The continuum has two parts. The first is services, including health care, mental health care, social services, transportation programs and housing for the elderly. Newer trends include allowing people to "age in place" in naturally occurring retirement communities.

The second element is to coordinate mechanisms into a system instead of a fragmentary collection of services.

Local communities are looking for a coordinated effort. Without such coordination, there will be gated communities for seniors who will have no connection to Judaism, and the poor will be left behind, said Elliot Palevsky, executive director of the River Garden Hebrew Home for the Aged in Jacksonville, Fla.

Local Jewish leaders want the issue to be a national priority, but Congress has yet to make it so. Legislators have addressed the issue only in bits and pieces, such as regulation of nursing home care.

"If we don't get lawmakers to listen, we're not going to succeed," warned Diana Aviv, vice president of public policy for UJC, the Jewish community's central fundraising and social services agency.

Getting the attention of state lawmakers is important as well, community leaders note. Michael Blumenfeld, who works on government affairs as executive director of the Wisconsin Jewish Conference, a statewide lobbying group, said the only way to get state funding is to work in coalitions with other groups.

"You have to show legislators creative ideas and why it's worth the money," he said. "You have to say, 'You think it's bad now, but it's only going to get worse.'"

Some community leaders are worried that their legislators cannot look past this year's budget. Others are unsure of what to do next because it's still uncertain where budget cuts will be made.

In any case, a number of programs still are under way in different states to address seniors' needs, and advocates hope funding stays stable. Leaders say the programs allow seniors to maintain dignity and a level of independence while still feeling part of the community.

Some examples of alternative programming that use a variety of funding streams were cited.

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•The Kosher Konnection program delivers food every weekday to the campus of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County. Seniors spend time there and, on Fridays, participate in Shabbat services. Clients are charged a fee, and the federation subsidizes the rest.

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•Prime Time is a package of support services and educational programs provided by the Greater Hartford Jewish Community Center (JCC) to seniors who have lost a spouse or experienced some other trauma. JCC allocations for this program are supplemented by a grant from the United Way and fees for programming.

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•The Senior Computer Access Program, sponsored by the Jewish Family Service of San Diego, teaches basic computer skills to seniors. Participants pay class fees, but financial assistance is provided. Administrative, equipment and software expenses are covered through in-kind gifts and services and a grant from the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County.

The problem now is that budget deficits are threatening these new programs, according to Ron Soloway, managing director of government relations for United Jewish Appeal-Federation of Greater New York.

But even as some efforts have stalled in the short-term, the community can't afford not to seek alternative models for the long-term, Soloway said.

Communities must also take a look at changing trends -- such as long-distance caregiving -- and understand seniors' wide range of needs, said Jodi Lyons, president of the Association of Jewish Aging Services.

While the future may look somewhat bleak, communities vow not to abandon their elderly.

Joyce Garver Keller, executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, said the economy eventually will turn around and revenues will increase. When that happens, she said, help for the elderly must be at the top of the agenda.

"There is no Plan B," she said.

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