An elderly woman who turned to her local Jewish family service for therapy and other assistance was among the speakers at a statewide gathering on the expanding needs of New Jersey’s elderly.
“Ruth,” a client of the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, closed the Jan. 13 program at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, sharing her story of a middle-class couple whose finances were decimated by the husband’s illness.
The sole caregiver for her husband, Ruth, 73, was a registered nurse and later a legal administrator. She faced the double whammy of a sick husband — whose 2008 stroke was the first in a series of continuing medical problems — and three years later the loss of her job. By 2013, they faced a drastic reduction in the amount of paid physical and occupational therapy provided at home after rehab.
With their reserves gone, the couple was living entirely on Social Security, and Ruth went to JFCS for help. “If it weren’t for the therapy and resources that they tried to assist us with and made available, and that they were our advocate, we wouldn’t be here,” she said.
Stories like Ruth’s were at the center of the morning program of “Striving to Ensure the Golden Years Are Indeed Golden: How Jewish Family Services Organizations Support New Jersey’s Elderly in their Communities,” sponsored by the NJ Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies and the NJ Association of Jewish Family Service Agencies. Speakers described the challenges and opportunities Jewish social service agencies will face to assist the elderly and their caregivers.
Lee Sherman, president and CEO of the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies, noted that America’s elderly population is swelling, and that the Jewish community is aging disproportionately.
At the same time, the number of individuals able to care for their aging relatives is expected to decline markedly in the decades to come.
Keynote speaker Grace Egan, executive director of the New Jersey Foundation for Aging, added economics to the conversation, citing the number of elderly who do not have incomes to cover their basic living costs. According to Egan, 25 percent of NJ seniors rely on Social Security as their sole source of income, and 42 percent cannot cover basic expenses. Meanwhile, housing costs have risen — depending on whether property is owned or rented and whether for an individual or a couple — 9-14 percent since 2009.
Lowell Arye, deputy commissioner of the NJ Department of Human Services, pointed to changes over the last few decades regarding seniors and their needs. People often do not have family members close by, he said, as children move away and seniors themselves move to warmer parts of the country. At the same time, the baby boomers are aging quickly. In New Jersey the 60-64 age group increased by 45 percent between 2000 and 2010, and the 85-plus age group by 32 percent.
“We have known for years that because of the baby boomer population there would be a doubling of the old old by 2030,” said Arye. The demographics will require agencies to work together to provide resources, he said.
Arye also emphasized the importance of “aging in place,” or “ensuring that individuals live as independently as they possibly can and live in the community.” Jewish family service agencies have been aggressive in providing services to keep people out of nursing homes and assisted living, including chronic-disease management, fall-prevention programs, and caregiver respite services.
Sherman said, “We know people can live longer, more fulfilling and fulfilled lives in their own homes.”
One program that supports elders in their homes is HouseCalls, established over 15 years ago in the local community to address the needs of residents in two senior buildings. Reuben Rotman, executive director of Jewish Family Service of MetroWest, a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, talked about the program as an example of successful partnerships. Under the plan, JFS provides eldercare social work services, a local hospital supports a geriatric nurse practitioner, the Jewish Community Housing Corporation provides resident management staff, and the JCC MetroWest senior program provides staff.
“The needs of seniors today are more complex. People are living longer and as a result are dealing with chronic health issues,” said Rotman. “They often don’t have the financial resources to sustain themselves without assistance. Most of our clients are not entitled to state entitlement programs. You can’t just assume your client benefits from them. The programs we establish draw from government, private, corporate, United Way, federation, and foundation funding.”
JFS agencies have to partner with different entities to bring all necessary resources to the table. “I think that JFS agencies are uniquely positioned to do that,” said Rotman. “They have relationships within the Jewish community and outside the Jewish community and have experience providing the full range of service models — services that draw on partnerships with healthcare providers and that depend on volunteer involvement, socialization programs, mental health services, caregiver support, and all of that — that integration and that range of support — is what is needed today.”