We are a family here

“You don’t call. You don’t write. You don’t visit.”

So goes the eternal cry of Jewish parents, mythical and otherwise. But when an aging parent is in a residential facility, the issue becomes more complicated, say those who work with the aging.

It’s not just a question of remembering birthdays and Mother’s Day. The real issue is making visits more meaningful, all year round, and finding ways to create surrogate children and grandchildren through volunteer programs.

For some residents, holidays are “the only time many people come to visit,” says Carol Goldman, director of programs at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville. But the rest of the time — “that’s when the loneliness occurs.”

To make up for the time in between holidays, the Reutlinger Community, like the Jewish Home in San Francisco, has a core of active volunteers. In addition, teens from Temple Isaiah in Lafayette are currently meeting with residents, socializing and forming one-on-one relationships. The teens attend workshops where they learn about elder needs and then come together in such activities as ice cream socials, choral activities, documentaries and discussions, and personal visits.

“It’s not about teens entertaining seniors, but a give and take,” said Goldman, adding that she hopes deeper relationships will emerge and that the teens will begin helping seniors with computer skills and other activities.

The benefits are twofold, Goldman said. The teens get a chance to learn about the needs of the elderly, many of whom are much older than their own grandparents, who may not even live in California. In turn, “seniors get to be around children and youth and be a little more maternal and paternal.” In some cases, the relatives of residents live out of the area or at considerable distance.

Since the former Home for Jewish Parents moved from Oakland to suburban Danville and became the Reutlinger Community, many residents are far from their friends, who may have difficulty making the trip. And it’s not a facility that those without wheels can get to easily.

“Phone calls are great and packages are great, but having the physical presence and the eye contact and the one-on-one contact, dialogue and eye contact, there’s no comparison, and that’s what we hope the relationships will foster,” Goldman said.

Beyond the visits from teens and other volunteers, “we are a family here,” said Goldman, noting that the residence has a full program of activities and outings, from theater trips to picnics, and there are also support groups for residents. A lot of friendships have developed.”

The San Francisco location of the Jewish Home lends itself to more frequent visits from friends and family, according to Sherie Koshover, director of corporate planning and marketing and community relations at the Home, where she has worked for 30 years.

Nonetheless, “I wouldn’t be surprised if what stops some friends and acquaintances is unfounded fears and concerns of awful conditions in nursing homes.”

Images of warehousing, of elders lined up in wheelchairs, of a lack of dignity, can certainly be off-putting.

“That speaks to a de minimus quality of life that none of us embrace for elders in our society,” Koshover said, “and then we’re faced in our Jewish community of having to dispel the myths and misconceptions that surround long-term care.

“I’m hoping that we as professional caregivers — who have the privilege of caring for elders who require facility-based care — that we have learned what we need to do much better.”

Because the Home, where the residents’ average age is 88, puts an emphasis on psychological and emotional care, Koshover said, she frequently sees elders coming from their own apartments, “suffering from social isolation,” and getting a new lease on life. They become more responsive when they’re surrounded by other people and getting the care they need, she said, adding, “People need to be engaged at every age.”

Apart from visits from family members, the Home, like the Reutlinger Community, has a rabbi on staff, spiritual programming and a companionship program that pairs elders with youth.

“The bottom line is every one of us regardless of age needs to feel cared about,” Koshover said. “If that is provided by family, that’s marvelous. But a good home will provide its residents with the feeling that they are being well cared for — and cared about. … I really see the Jewish Home in many ways as a fine long-term hotel, for a population with very special needs.”

At the Reutlinger Community, Elaine Zolfarelli, MSW, director of social services, says one of her goals is to help residents stay connected with family members — if not through frequent visits, then by phone calls, letters and e-mail.

“We also have friendly visitor volunteers who come in, or another staff or another family may find out about a resident who maybe doesn’t have family close by, and they will adopt them.”

At Reutlinger, where the residents’ average age is 85, Zolfarelli said one of the difficult parts of her job is alleviating the fears some family members have of making visits, particularly in the skilled nursing and dementia areas.

Zolfarelli emphasizes that visitors don’t need to try to carry on a conversation — sometimes just being there, holding a hand, singing songs from childhood or showing old family photos may be enough. In addition, visits can be scheduled around an activity, such as a music program.

But sometimes, despite all good intentions, a visit can be frustrating. The elderly relative may be uncommunicative. The visitor may be angry.

“You do need to cherish the good moments and move forward,” Zolfarelli said. “It’s OK when things don’t work out. Sometimes you just have to punt.”

Jewish Homes in the Bay Area always welcome volunteers. To volunteer at the Jewish Home, call (415) 334-2500. At the Reutlinger Community, call (925) 648-2800.

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].