U.S. Jews are warned to brace for a rapidly graying populace

WASHINGTON — 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 disappeared and everything has become tougher since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told Jewish community professionals late last year at the United Jewish Communities' 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 comprehensive, client-oriented system of elder services.

The plan calls for 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 program calls for an orchestrated system instead of a fragmentary collection of services.

Local communities are looking for such coordination. Without it, 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 fund-raising 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 sources include:

*The Kosher Konnection, a program that delivers food every weekday to the campus of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County in Florida. Seniors spend time there and, on Fridays, participate in Shabbat services. Clients are charged a fee, and the federation subsidizes the rest. Locally, the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services offers Kosher Meals on Wheels, providing seniors with hot kosher lunches either at home or at a local community site.

*Prime Time, a network of support services and educational programs provided by the Greater Hartford Jewish Community Center 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. Locally, the S.F.-based JFCS and the Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay offer similar services to seniors, including survivors and emigres.

The S.F.-based JFCS Bereavement and Healing program offers free services, including home and hospital visits, and pastoral counseling. Its Healing From New Loss groups includes several sessions co-facilitated by JFCS' chaplain.

*The Senior Computer Access Program, a project sponsored by the Jewish Family Service of San Diego that 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. Locally, a number of the Jewish community centers offer computer classes for seniors.

*JFCS of the East Bay is beginning a volunteer-driven transportation program, Seniors in Motion. which will provide "door through door" service," as opposed to curbside service, according to Rabbi Ted Feldman, executive director. The agency is also offering a Health Navigator Project to help the elderly make appointments and navigate the health system.

The problem now is that budget deficits are threatening these new programs, according to Ron Soloway, managing director of government relations for UJA-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 also must 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.

For Feldman, some questions are still unresolved as the baby boomers move from middle age to old age. "When you have a basically disaffiliated Jewish community, particularly in the baby boom generation, will they turn to the Jewish community for services? If the vast majority… hasn't come to the Jewish community for resources, will that change in the next 20 years? And to me, the piece that will attract the younger generation moving up to old age to the Jewish community would have to do with the quality of service rendered" and the community's success in communicating the quality of its services.