Passion for aiding the elderly guides doc at Jewish Home

During his medical training, Jay S. Luxenberg couldn't stand to see the way his supervising physicians treated the elderly when they came to the hospital's emergency room. He had grown up extremely close with his grandparents, and he believed elderly patients were often overmedicated or not afforded the respect they deserved.

"I hated that," he said. "It wasn't the way I'd want to see my grandparents treated, and I knew I could do a better job."

So the Newark, N.J., native went on to specialize in geriatrics. But in the late '70s, when he was in medical school, such a specialty didn't exist in this country — although it did in Britain and Canada. Just as the elderly did not receive the proper respect in the American medical profession — neither did the field of medicine that addressed aging.

The field has come a long way since then, as has Luxenberg himself. In the early '80s, he was the first to enroll in the Geriatric Medicine Fellowship program at University of California San Francisco. Later, he joined its faculty and eventually became its director.

Now, as the chief of medical services at the Jewish Home in San Francisco, Luxenberg has been honored as Agency Staff Member of the Year by the Jewish Community Federation, as part of its Distinguished Service Awards.

Luxenberg, 44, lives in Greenbrae. His wife, Jan, also works at the Jewish Home, as a rehabilitative audiologist, helping the elderly with communication. They have two sons and belong to Congregation Rodef Sholom.

His Web site — — also lets on that the doctor is a wine enthusiast and Bob Dylan fan.

The son of a truck driver, Luxenberg said he always enjoyed science, even as a child. "I like the challenge that goes into understanding how things work, whether it's physics, biology or chemistry. And I always liked working with people. Medicine was a nice combination of science and people skills."

While Luxenberg was accepted to every college he applied to, including Harvard, Princeton and Yale, he chose a program through the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Albany Medical College in New York that would allow him to get his bachelor's and medical degrees in six years.

He did his residency at Mount Zion in San Francisco, because it was one of two hospitals in the country where he could study geriatrics while specializing in internal medicine.

"I was the first person to do it, and when I showed up they didn't know what to do with me."

During that time, he began visiting the Jewish Home with his supervisor who worked there.

Luxenberg spent some time in England, training there, and then spent three years at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., where he did research on Alzheimer's disease and brain aging.

When he returned to San Francisco, he began a private practice, while also working part time at the Jewish Home and helping to oversee the fellowship program at UCSF. When the director quit, he took on the fellowship himself.

At the same time, he was making about 50 house calls a month and seeing 120 patients in the various nursing homes around the city.

"It was a lot of running around and I did that for 10 years," he said.

When he was asked to become director of medical services at the Jewish Home five years ago, he accepted. He continues to teach at UCSF and offers an undergraduate course on aging at U.C. Berkeley. And, he edits Psychogeriatrics: The World of Mental Health & Aging, the online journal of the International Psychogeriatric Association.

Since he has been medical services director at the Jewish Home, Luxenberg has started a research center there in collaboration with the Goldman Center on Aging. He and a fellow geriatrician have received NIH funding to study the effects of direct sunlight on sleeping patterns of the elderly.

Luxenberg has also established relationships with the other area Jewish residences for the elderly, Menorah Park and Rhoda Goldman Plaza. "This has really proven to be a benefit for them and us because we're not reinventing the wheel," he said.

He believes that one of his greatest accomplishments at the Jewish Home is drastically decreasing the number of residents who take sleeping pills.

There were 110 such people when he arrived there, he said. Now, that number is down to seven.

He quickly learned that some of the patients were requesting sleeping pills at 6:30 or 7 p.m. at night. The reason? "It turns out they were saying there was nothing to do," he said.

Luxenberg thought that if some activities were to take place in the evening, it would keep the residents awake longer and then they would fall asleep naturally.

Some of the activities staff switched their shifts from regular working hours to stay until 9 p.m., and now the residents have entertainment five nights a week, including live concert performances or gambling; bingo and blackjack are favorites. There is also a Friday night Shabbat service, with an oneg afterward.

In general, Luxenberg said, "I see elderly people being hurt by too many pills, and they often need help negotiating the complexity of the system. I find it so useful to say, 'If this was my grandmother what would I recommend?'"

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."