JFS Expanding Outreach to Jewish Seniors in Congregate Living Facilities
Carlye Levine, JFS geriatric care manager and senior outreach coordinator, said, “What our goal is, is to basically find the Jews, to locate Jewish residents and make sure they’re as connected as they would like to be to the outside Jewish community.”
This starts with connecting with those in congregate living facilities – any senior housing including independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing and memory care – who are no longer able to get out as often as they would like.
JFS’ grant-funded outreach program has existed for about eight years. Levine has worked with the program for almost three years.
Except for counseling services, which are priced on a sliding scale, JFS services to seniors are provided at no charge.
JFS has identified 230 Jewish residents in 58 congregate living facilities in the Austin area. The facility with the most Jewish residents is home to about 20 Jewish seniors.
Levine aims to visit those facilities and people at least once a year. Often, she finds that the seniors she meets need geriatric care management or counseling for depression, anxiety or bereavement.
She also provides monthly Shabbat services – Congregation Tiferet Israel’s Rabbi Dan Millner teams up with JFS to provide education at Shabbat services at one of the facilities – and Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, Purim and Passover events at several of the facilities. In offering these events, JFS hopes to draw out those who are not comfortable publicly identifying as Jewish.
“We know that they’re there, but not all of them self-identify. It can be difficult when you’re in a group of people where everybody celebrates Christmas and everybody celebrates all of these holidays that are very different, and if you’re only one or maybe two at a facility, you may not want to be like, ‘Hey I’m Jewish, let’s do something for me,’” Levine added.
Often, a lot of non-Jewish residents attend the events as well, because they want to learn.
“They’re incredibly respectful and they’ll ask very meaningful questions. It starts a good dialogue. The Jewish residents love to be able to educate on what it means to them to be Jewish, and what the differences are and what the similarities are,” Levine said.
The Outreach programs have also served as an opportunity for seniors to connect with other members of Austin’s Jewish community.
Some children have chosen to work with older Jewish adults for their B’nai Mitzvah projects, playing music for congregate living facility residents or helping Levine to lead Shabbat services in congregate living facilities.
Levine has also helped some facility residents connect with University of Texas students.
JGrad, a group of Jewish grad students, have adopted a facility, bringing hamentashen during Purim and helping with a Hanukkah party for residents, and UT Yiddish professor Itzik Gottesman brought one of his classes to a facility.
“We’re trying to maintain quality of life in addition to what the facility is already doing,” Levine said, explaining that without JFS outreach, residents would be isolated from one another and would lack connection to the JCC and the local Jewish community.
“A lot of them had no idea there were other Jewish residents. So bringing them together because of the Shabbat services, because they’ve met other Jews, now they’ve formed a group. They’ll have dinner together, they’ll spend a lot more time together, because it’s comfortable,” Levine said, adding that getting together with other Jewish people provides residents, many of whom moved from large Jewish communities, a chance to reminisce.
Around holidays, JFS urges facilities to bring residents to the JCC so they can participate in events including the Passover seder and Hanukkah party.
“We’ve found that most facilities are very accommodating. They’re more than happy to have us there. They’ll go out of their way to find space for us, to put it on their calendar and to call everybody and remind them that these things are happening,” Levine said.
JFS staff members are the “feet on the street,” Levine explained, who also go out and talk with activity coordinators, those who create social events at facilities, about programs that are offered at the J.
“We get a lot of calls from them saying, ‘We have Jewish residents. What do we do with them? And we trying to talk them through things like Passover,” she added.
Levine; Lisa Quay, senior adult programs director at the JCC; and Aliza Orent, the director of Jewish life and learning, also reach out to about 200 area professionals working with older adults through Mishpacha Monthly, a newsletter with information about happenings at the JCC and other Jewish topics.
In March 2014, JFS offered a cultural competency event attended by more than 100 professionals who work with older adults. Rabbi Freedman from Temple Beth Shalom discussed offering Jewish residents options other than sandwiches during Passover, and other uniquely Jewish practices. Levine said the event was very well received and will be held again in 2016.
“It’s Texas, and I wouldn’t say anti-Semitism is running crazy in any of these facilities, but there’s not a lot of knowledge,” she said, pointing out that Austin lacks a Jewish-centric congregate living facility with much Jewish programming and a kosher kitchen.
In June 29, Austin native Mary Axelrud will join JFS staff as congregate living facility outreach and volunteer coordinator. A social worker who spent the last year doing outreach with older adults at JFS in Boca Raton, Florida, Axelrud will work to expand Austin’s JFS offerings.
Axelrud said, “I have personally seen and been involved in Jewish programming that is successfully implemented in communities. I think where the true challenge comes in, is not only identifying Jewish individuals and connecting them to services, but ensuring that they remain connected and engaged in the community, and that can only happen when the programming is catered to the community’s needs and individuals feel as though they are having every aspect of their needs met,” she added.
Levine explained that the two volunteer programs JFS currently offers in Austin have not been as active as she would like. She expects Axelrud will help build the programs up, since this is the first time the programs have been led by a full-time staff person.
Through the Friendly Visitor program, JFS trains volunteers to meet with an isolated older adult to provide companionship.
Through Austin Patient Partners, JFS trains volunteers to act as an extra set of eyes and ears with older adults going to the doctor. Volunteers take seniors to the doctor, sit in on appointments, take notes, and provide information to adult children or the older adult about what happened and the next steps.
“It’ll be nice to have someone full-time who can really dedicate volunteer training and recruiting to get that up and going,” said Levine, adding that 20 people currently volunteer for the two programs.
Looking forward, Levine said JFS will offer more groups and expand geriatric care management services. A new bereavement group will start in the fall, and she hopes to start an early Alzheimer’s group in partnership with JCC Senior Programs.
“We don’t have any Jewish housing, and that is kind of forefront on a lot of people’s minds. We get a lot of questions about that. Which is why the goal of making places as Jewish-friendly as possible. The unfortunate thing about senior housing is that it is expensive to run. The ones that need it can’t afford it and the ones that can afford it would stay at home and hire somebody,” Levine said.