When I first met Sarah, she was bent over her walker intently making her way through the gardens of the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA). While her steps were merely a shuffle, her brown eyes were lively.
I often walk through our Grancell Village and Eisenberg Village campuses to visit with our 800 residents. I frequently ask the question: "What makes the Jewish Home Jewish?"
Sarah had a ready answer.
"I am the daughter of a rabbi and the wife of a cantor," she said. "I have outlived all my brothers and sisters. My husband is gone. And now I have outlived my children, too. What makes this home Jewish is that when I outlive this [she taps her temple] then I trust this home and the community to take care of me."
Sarah died peacefully last year at age 101. Her words stay with me. This simple story sums up our home's mission -- taking care of our elderly -- and how crucial it is to involve the entire community in their support.
We are reminded daily through advertising and news stories of the "graying" of America. With increasing life spans and a growing population of those older than 65, our politicians debate budget allocations and changes in governmental programs without sufficient consideration of Sarah and the millions she represents. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (Medi-Cal) programs are stretched beyond capacity to meet the present and future needs. Somewhere in focusing on the numbers of the elderly, they lost sight of Sarah. We are Sarah.
A phenomenon in the graying hair of America is the whitening hair of our Jewish community. Jews are living longer than other groups in our nation. Currently, one in every eight Americans is "older" (65+). As the baby boom generation begins to turn 65, projections are that one in five people will be older than 65 by 2030. Surprisingly, our population of 85+ is growing even faster than the 65+-ers. The 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey reported that Jews older than 85 were already almost 2 percent of the population -- nearly twice that of the general population.
Each year of increasing age brings challenges. Acute illnesses hit harder and long time "chronic" conditions (like arthritis or diabetes) are more difficult to manage. Walking is often dependent on a walker, cane or wheelchair. Eyesight and hearing are affected. The fear and risk of cognitive impairments grows. Isolation becomes a daily habit, loneliness an ache and the only companion television or a caretaker/housekeeper. Safety and personal security concerns limit evening outings and inhibit trying "new" activities. Ninety percent of seniors use Social Security as their primary income, and one-third of our most elderly live on less than $10,000 each year. Government resources are already inadequate. Remarkably, almost half of our oldest seniors live independently. But others, like Sarah, need help -- either around the clock, or intermittently -- to enjoy a life that can be enriching and fulfilling. At JHA, the average age is 90 and, like Sarah, one-third of our 800 residents have outlived spouse, siblings and children. Seventy-five percent of our 800 residents are able to receive the care of the JHA only because of welfare programs supplemented by the generosity of individual donors.
Sarah's story, along with the sobering statistics, is a wake-up call. We cannot assume the government or someone else will take responsibility for our elderly; it is up to us. Supporting the frailest and most dependent of our seniors also demands a commitment to excellence in the quality and quantity of services provided. An old Chasidic quote rings true today: "The prosperity of a country is in accordance with its treatment of the aged."
Choices we make now can assure that our Jewish elderly live lives of dignity and respect. We learn well from our elders, as from JHA resident Sylvia Harmatz, age 105: "How wonderful that there were people who had the foresight to build the Jewish Home. They have created a home where old people can go and spend the last years of their lives without worry. This is truly a haven."
From another resident: "A reason to get up in the morning! Companionship, friendship. This is what I've found."
Action is the next step and, like Sarah's, it can be a small one. If you want to learn more about the needs and how to help, come and visit the JHA. Together with us, determine what you can do to make a difference today and tomorrow. Talk about aging with your peers and your children -- it's an important issue for us all and we all need to be involved. Life does not end because we get older, life ends when we stop living it.
Jewish Home for the Aging will break ground on its new residential medical center on Sunday, Feb. 8. For more information, call (818) 774-3000.
Molly Forrest is CEO of the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging.