COVER STORY:A call for help

It didn’t take much to ruin Bonnie Schiff’s day. Just the thought of her mother, Esther Greenspan — alone, unwell and living far away — was enough.

Fiercely independent most of her life, Greenspan, 90, had been suffering from lupus and dehydration. She’d even been hospitalized several times. Her condition grew worse.

But when it came to helping her own aging mother, in Pennsylvania, Schiff faced a very big obstacle. A 3,000-mile-wide obstacle.

“I was flying back and forth every few months,” recalls Schiff, a San Rafael resident. “I needed help thinking through a strategy. We didn’t even know how to talk to her. I had guilt feelings. I’m here, she’s there. How can I possibly take care of her? I didn’t know who to trust.”

Trying to manage care for aging parents like Schiff’s is never a day in the park, especially when that park is hundreds or thousands of miles away.

In recent years, Schiff and others like her have turned to Jewish Family and Children’s Services for help. Agencies with that name have long been a resource for people caring for their aging parents, even if one or the other lives far away. It’s an innovative long-distance care network set up by JFCS offices around the country, including the one based in San Francisco.

“With our seniors here, a significant population of their adult children live out of state or in Southern California,” says Mickey Sherman, director of the S.F.-based JFCS’ Seniors at Home program. “Probably 50 percent of our seniors have a family member living far away.”

That could be prescription for serious shpilkes. To assist those families, JFCS social workers contact their counterparts in other cities, hook them up with the family members and help manage the loved one’s care, long distance style.

Such services are offered by almost all JFCS offices, including those around the Bay Area. Says Ted Feldman, executive director of JFCS of the East Bay, “We get a significant number of calls going in both directions: people whose parents live here and people whose parents are in other places. We’ve been doing this for at least 10 years, and the level of cooperation is good.”

The services provided include virtually anything that might come up.

Says Sherman, “We have everything from licensed nursing services, to home hospice to guardianships. Counseling, kosher nutrition, transportation, home repair, getting their hair done, you name it. If someone needs a new washing machine, it gets ordered. We take them out to buy clothes, find housing, manage their trust or pay their bills. Every aspect of life.”

For San Francisco resident Shirley Horowitz, that first contact with the S.F.-based JFCS’ long-distance care involved an apple pie.

The Brooklyn-born retiree moved to California in 1987. She remained active into her 80s, becoming a fixture at San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel and serving as a volunteer with the Senior Action Network. But everything changed after a bad fall while visiting her daughter Bobbie in Pennsylvania.”

“When she broke her shoulder, it was clear [things] weren’t working,” says Bobbie Horowitz from her home in Philadelphia. “She couldn’t even open a jar by herself.”

After convalescing for a time in her daughter’s home, Shirley eventually returned to the Bay Area. But now she needed help. The family turned to JFCS.

“A volunteer came by to bring me an apple pie,” remembers the elder Horowitz. “They recommended a doctor. JFCS opens their doors to everyone, and that’s what I like about them. They’ve done a marvelous job. They’re competent, they care, they never say no.”

A big part of that comes in the form of the care manager. In Horowitz’s case, that would be Craig Bruce.

“After Shirley broke her shoulder, I did a lot of hand-holding with her daughter in Pennsylvania,” recalls Bruce, who’s been with JFCS for four years. “We coordinated in-home support services, and had home attendants every day.”

Another plus for Horowitz and others living on a fixed income: JFCS’ sliding scale makes the services available to all, Jewish and non-Jewish (30 percent of the S.F.-based JFCS clients are Jewish).

“Like all nonprofits,” says Sherman, “we depend on being able to generate fee-for-service business to help support services to clients with no reimbursement. If someone is unable to pay, they are not obligated to, though we try to ask everyone to pay something, even if it’s a couple of dollars.”

Adds Bruce of his client Shirley Horowitz, “She couldn’t afford care otherwise. Right now she is living in her own apartment, doing therapy. When you think about it, it’s so much cheaper having people stay in their own homes than spending $5,000 a month in long-term care.”

Being a registered nurse, Bobbie Horowitz knows the stakes and gives JFCS high marks.

“I have a high-maintenance mom,” she says, “but they respect her dignity. They have an idea what it means to grow old, and to be a Jew in a place where the viable Jewish community and common cultural understanding she grew up with isn’t there. JFCS is her Jewish community.”

While many of the services seem straightforward, many others are not. Bobbie Horowitz says she is most grateful for the kind of nuanced assistance JFCS provided her and her mother.

When her mother’s beloved niece died, the younger Horowitz relied on JFCS to break the news.

“I thought, ‘How do I tell Mom?’ I called the case manager and asked if he could be in house when I made the call, so she wouldn’t be alone with it. I didn’t have to explain the importance. There’s a lot of mitzvah involved.”

Adds Bruce: “At times it’s difficult, because you’re dealing with people at the end stage of life. But the upside is we improve their base line, we prevent them from being institutionalized and we get to know them. It’s an honor to work with them. They continually amaze me.”

For Schiff, whose mother lived in a much smaller town, the challenges were more formidable. Both she and her brother, a Long Island-based rabbi, tried to convince their mom to move to an assisted-living facility, but when the strong-willed senior refused, her children called in JFCS.

“I took a ‘You and Your Aging Parent,’ class at JFCS,” says Schiff, “and got a lot of basic information about resources.”

Schiff came to realize her mother’s biggest problem was not physical. It was psychological. Depression, so common among isolated seniors, had Esther Greenspan in a stranglehold. But her Harrisburg, Pa.-based JFCS care manager was on the case.

“I learned ‘How are you?’ can be a bad question to ask a person who is depressed,” says Schiff, who herself is an employee of the JCFS in San Francisco. “Better to talk about yourself. I also learned you can be a good daughter and be a help without being there.”

With her increasingly frequent hospitalizations, Greenspan had reached the point where she could no longer live on her own. Ultimately, with the help of the JCFS case manager, Schiff and her brother, Rabbi Mark Greenspan, forced the issue and got their mother relocated to a Long Island assisted-living facility, near his Oceanside, N.Y., home

“She was very mad at us,” says Schiff. “But now I don’t get scared when the phone rings. I know she’s being cared for and my brother’s right there. I don’t know if we could have gotten her to move without JFCS.”

The situation for the Horowitz clan is much improved as well. So much so, Bobbie Horowitz has planned a family cruise to Mexico, with her mother coming along as guest of honor. “This is the trip of a lifetime,” she says. “All kinds of things could go wrong. But because the agency is there, my stress level is lower than it would be.”

Says Sherman of her agency’s all-encompassing style, “We make sure all services we provide are coordinated, and we do the problem solving together.” Then she adds with a laugh: “We’re rent-a-noodge.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.