Better Together: Jewish Organizations, Congregations Evolve to Meet Changing Needs of Austin Adults 55+
By Tonyia Cone
The Austin is home to the United States’ second-fastest growing population of those age 65 and older, and the fastest-growing population of adults between 55 and 64 years old, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Austin’s Jewish organizations and congregations are forming partnerships and finding other ways to support this growing group, who have different needs and expectations than previous generations at this stage of life.
Jewish professionals are noticing a number of trends among adults they work with who are 55 and older.
Rachel Wimberley, Shalom Austin Jewish Community Center director of adult programs, said adults are staying active longer as they age, and their movement into retirement is a gradual process, as people are shortening their work week instead of abruptly retiring.
Carlye Levine, senior adult services director at Jewish Family Service, said one reason behind the trend is that people are aging better because they are not as isolated.
It is also partly a financial decision because pensions are no longer typical, and younger people do not save as people did in the past, when life was less expensive.
In order to provide a broader range of programming, the J partners with organizations like AARP and AGE of Central Texas, which trains teachers and volunteers.
“Two of my teachers are also two of my [adult programming participants],” Wimberley said, explaining that they taught a session about avoiding the hazards of falling.
Women’s Philanthropy is another Adult Programming and JFS partner, particularly for big holiday luncheons, which are usually underwritten by local resident communities and other sponsors, and feature rabbis from local congregations.
“Some people I only see at those holidays. Other people I see all the time. But that may be their only observance of the holiday,” Wimberley said.
Groups at local congregations also connect to provide more programming to adults 55 and older.
David Mann, chair of Congregation Beth Israel’s Empty Nesters social group, explained that including members from other congregations creates more diversity and ideas about group activities.
“It’s a great way to make friends,” he said, adding that Empty Nesters, CBI’s Second Sixty luncheon group, Shalom Seniors at Temple Beth Shalom, Hazak at Congregation Agudas Achim, and Retired Old Men Eating Out (ROMEOs) all share event info and are open to anyone 55 and older.
Rabbi Gail Swedroe explained that Hazak and CAA’s Young Families group have connected in order to expand holiday and Shabbat offerings to those six years and under, who will appreciate shorter, earlier services, while giving grandparents and those wishing to be an adopted grandparent a chance to celebrate with young children. The program will start this fall.
“There’s a power to affinity groups and being with people who are in a different stage of life,” Swedroe said.
Intergenerational programs between the Austin Jewish Academy and JCC Adult Programs culminated their 2017-2018 programming with an intergenerational ice cream social in May, where participants in intergenerational classes shared their work.
Shereen Ben-Moshe at Congregation Beth El explained that their board is sensitive to the needs of older adults and is interested in partnering with other organizations, as there is always more they can do. The congregation provides meeting space for Jewish War Veterans events, reaches out to include those of all ages, and works to ensure older adults are included in Sisterhood, Shabbat and other programming.
CBE’s Chai Mitzvah Teen Group, religious school students and Sisterhood teamed up to bake honey cakes before Rosh Hashanah, and to make hamentaschen and mishloach manos during Purim. Then teens and religious school families delivered the items to older adults.
Transportation is notoriously one of the biggest problem people face as they age. Wimberley explained that the Jewish Community Center’s bus enables people to come to campus for programming like the Life of the New York Times, where they can connect and have meaningful conversations, and to go on field trips throughout the city, including social and cultural outings and places where they can be of service.
“In this new age, we’ve noticed people don’t want service, they want to be of service,” she explained, adding that without the bus, such programs would not be possible.
Many living in retirement communities have access to transportation to shop and do other things at designated times, but most communities will not take residents anywhere they want on demand. Wimberley points people who ask to programs like Drive a Senior, which matches volunteer drivers with those older than 60 who need a way to get someplace, but such programs also have restrictions.
Wimberley said she is working to partner with a nonprofit to help people use technology to bridge the gap between lack of transportation and whatever they need, at a time when adults increasingly want to stay in their homes longer.
“There is a hope that the shared economy will help people age in place,” she said, adding that ride share apps and services like Blue Apron can be invaluable once people understand how to use the technology.
In order to help people stay in their homes longer, JFS offers geriatric care management, pointing people to various referrals and resources and for those without family or friends to help, monitoring people on an ongoing basis and even providing things like medical power of attorney.
Levine explained that many JFS services, like the food pantry, reduced fare bus pass and emergency financial assistance programs, are not limited to those in a particular age range.
Most of the older adults moving to Austin do so in order to be close to younger family members, usually their adult children and grandchildren. Levine often fields calls from adults who are moving their parents to the area and trying to figure out where they should live.
Once the parents are in Austin, JFS can offer counseling for issues ranging from depression and anxiety to finding their new community and connecting with a synagogue that is a good fit. For caretakers of aging parents, Kavod is a professionally facilitated support group offered by JFS, which focuses on empathy, coping, problem-solving and the joys and challenges of the experience.
Once the time comes, JFS can also help caregivers with advance care and end of life planning, as well as hospice referrals.
“Networking is important to know what’s out there,” Levine said.JFS also provides outreach, going into resident communities to teach facilities about working with Jewish residents and to connect with Jewish residents so they have a connection to the Jewish community. In order to provide Shabbat and holiday programming, JFS has a network of volunteers and works with rabbis from local congregations who lead services.
“Our goal is to be a continuum, a supportive connection even when people are doing okay as a check in, not just when they are in a crisis situation or when they are not doing well healthwise,” Levine said. ■