Hands-on JFCS volunteers ease seniors day-to-day chores

Harris Ades can no longer perform such tasks as writing or filing.

"My hands don't work too well," says Ades, who has Parkinson's disease.

After spending some time in the hospital, the 71-year-old San Francisco man "was very much behind in my paperwork, paying bills and so forth. Things piled up on me."

Then late last year, Doris Livingston Grasshoff came into his life through the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services.

After a few visits from Grasshoff, a longtime JFCS volunteer, Ades began to regain control over his paperwork and his home life.

"When you have somebody sitting there doing it with you, you work a lot better yourself," he says. "She's very intelligent lady and she knows bookkeeping. She's very good on neatness and things."

Grasshoff is one of four volunteers in JFCS' case-aide program.

"We'd like to get a few more people," says Debbi Goodman, who coordinates the program.

But it isn't easy to find volunteers who can help during the day, have a car available, and are interested in working with older people, particularly those who are frail or infirm.

In addition to paperwork, they may perform such concrete tasks as helping with moving or shopping.

"Sometimes it's a one-shot" visit to a particular client, Goodman says. "Sometimes it's two or three times. What's needed is somebody who can go in and develop a relationship quickly and help the client with the task."

Grasshoff, who lives in the city's Pacific Heights neighborhood, has made several visits to Ades, who lives on the other side of town, near Stern Grove. She says part of her motivation to help others comes from her experiences more than half a century ago as a refugee.

Born in Germany, Grasshoff was 11 during Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass in 1938, when synagogues, Jewish businesses and homes were attacked and Jews arrested.

Her father, the late Eric Livingston, was taken to Dachau but released after two weeks because he had a visa to immigrate to the United States. Shortly after he was released, the family of four left for San Francisco, where Grasshoff's 94-year-old mother, Greta Livingston, continues to live.

When they arrived, the family started out "completely from scratch," aided by the Hebrew Free Loan Association, founded the same day my father was born," Grasshoff says.

He died in 1998 at the age of 100.

Because of that help from the HFLA, Grasshoff says she "was brought up with the idea of giving back to the community…Volunteering is my life."

While her children were growing up, she worked as a volunteer in the medical field and developed a health-education project at a San Diego hospital.

Later returning to San Francisco at midlife in 1972, she re-entered the workforce, serving as director of volunteers for Mount Zion Hospital, as director of volunteers and community relations at the American Cancer Society in the city, and in health education at the American Lung Association.

At the same time, she began volunteering for a number of Jewish organizations.

At Congregation Emanu-El, where she is a member, she served on the sisterhood board and co-curated the recent architectural exhibit. She has served on the Jewish Community Relations Council, on the JFCS public issues committee and as a regional president for Women's American ORT.

This is her third year volunteering in the JFCS case-aide program. What intrigues her is "the bikkur cholim aspect," fulfilling a mitzvah by visiting the sick. "That's our tradition, isn't it?"

Grasshoff, who usually sees most clients once or twice, has made several visits to Ades' home. While she admits that filing and secretarial work are "not my favorite things," she finds working with Ades extremely rewarding. Together, they have helped clear a mountain of paperwork.

"There's mutual satisfaction. It's very gratifying to be able to help somebody," she says, adding that Ades "has a marvelous attitude. He's physically handicapped, but he has a very astute mind."

Ades hopes others will become case aides.

"The point is, volunteers are very much needed," he says. "I can't hire people like this, and that's a problem. I don't need somebody full time or even two hours a day. I need somebody to go with me to Safeway to get a case of soda pop or something I can't carry in my wheelchair."

Goodman says she would love to double the number of volunteers who work with the elderly. Case aides receive initial training as well as ongoing training, with meetings every other month.

"We're looking for a minimum of a year commitment. Ideally, they would want to continue."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].