A moment of painful silence followed Rabbi Shira Stern’s question to professionals who work with the elderly: “How many of you would like to reside in the institution where you work?” Very few hands went up.
The challenge, as she and other speakers at the May 29 CARES conference in Whippany made clear, is how to improve the physical, emotional, and social conditions facing people who can no longer control their own lives.
Stern, an educator, chaplain, and director of the Center for Pastoral Care and Counseling in Marlboro, was the keynote speaker at the annual networking and professional development event hosted by Greater MetroWest CARES (Committee Addressing Resources for Eldercare Services).
The organization is a collaboration among Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and its partner agencies, established to create a continuum of care for people over 60, dealing with everything from home and healthcare, to hospice and bereavement.
This year’s event was designed to help professionals in the field develop “multidisciplinary tools to sustain the spirit and reduce isolation among older adults.” The approximately 65 participants included social workers, chaplains, and health-care workers.
Stern had just experienced a loss of control herself; on her way to Whippany, she was in a four-car accident. “No one was injured, but forgive me if I’m a little shaky,” she said.
In their own discomfort and confusion, she said, elderly people ask her, “Rabbi, why am I abandoned — by my children? by God?” Some 35 years of senior care and hospice work have taught her to expect that question, she said.
Assessing the client and their environment requires all five senses, she said: listening, watching, smelling, touching, and even tasting. Real listening, she said, is more than simply soothing, even when clients say things like, “Why am I still here? I want to die.”
“You have to get in the boat with them,” Stern said, arguing for close attention rather than brisk instructions. She went on to suggest techniques ranging from a shift in language — for example, from “kvetch” to “lament” in describing a client’s complaints — to singing and praying together, and recognizing that seniors are not children to be scolded and cajoled.
In the panel discussion that followed Stern’s presentation, Maria Mullen, director of nursing services with Jewish Family Service of Central NJ, said that as a nurse, she sees it as her role “to tow that boat,” to ensure danger is averted and caregiving is done right.
On the panel with her were chaplain Leana Moritt; Marilynn Schneider, the director of WAE (Wellness, Arts and Enrichment) Center of the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled of MetroWest; Rachel Cohen, program manager of At Home Services for the Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest NJ; and Barbra Bleecker, who is a chaplain and a certified home health aide with JVS Caregiving Companions.
Led by Stern, they shared their views on spirituality and well-being, working sometimes with “people you wouldn’t want to hang out with,” said Moritt, nurturing creativity and communication with clients and their families.
Bleecker offered a perspective drawn from both spiritual counseling and hands-on care. She urged those present to recognize that what’s “on the surface isn’t always the most important thing going on with a client.” What they enjoy can be a key. “Ask, ‘What floats your boat?’” she suggested.
The gathering, funded by the Pincus Family Fund and the federation, was the second of its kind, and the turnout was higher than last year’s — proof, the organizers said, of support for the concept. “I think people really welcome a chance to meet face-to-face with people they’ve probably only spoken to on the phone, and to connect with other people in the field,” CARES chair Sharon Seiden said.
“This area has an extraordinary wealth of services to offer seniors,” said Marion Marlow, the coordinator and allocations associate for CARES. “We want to make it even better, through this kind of connection and coordination between the different groups.”