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Synagogue project addresses older congregants
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Synagogue project addresses older congregants

Dr. Rosalind Dorlen delivers the first of four seminars hosted by the Lauren Danis Eldernet Project at Temple Emanu-El.
Dr. Rosalind Dorlen delivers the first of four seminars hosted by the Lauren Danis Eldernet Project at Temple Emanu-El.

With her 90-year-old mother in the audience at Temple Emanu-El on Feb. 28, psychologist Dr. Rosalind Dorlen seemed to have some insider’s knowledge about what it means to boost resilience as one ages.

But whether she gained that knowledge personally or professionally, she was confident in describing ways to make one’s later years fulfilling in all sorts of new ways.

“Getting old is a matter of giving up choices and passions,” she said, “but you don’t have to do that.”

Instead, she urged audience members to put aside any “awfulizing” attitudes — the “what ifs” that undermine confidence — and to risk the unfamiliar.

“That can be the hardest thing to do,” she said. “It might make us feel dumb or unathletic, and that might remind us of our earlier years and how embarrassed we got if we tried to do something and failed. But successful people are those who make more mistakes and still persevere.”

Dorlen, past president of the New Jersey Psychological Association and current chair of the Council on Psychological Health in New Jersey, was giving the first in a series of four free seminars hosted by the Westfield temple’s Lauren Danis Eldernet Project.

Scheduled for Sunday nights in March and May (see sidebar), subsequent events will explore financial planning, dealing with a crisis with an aging family member, and health-care reform options as they affect seniors.

The project was launched 14 years ago by Gary and Leslie Danis, two temple members who live in Clark. They named the undertaking in honor of Gary’s niece, Lauren, who died at age 28, and who before that premature end had cared for his father — her grandfather. “She had a real passion for caring for old people,” Gary said.

Over the years, with the help of funding from the temple, the Grotta Foundation, and private donors, the project has run various programs. An early one involved recording written accounts of the life stories of seniors in the congregation, a number of whom are Holocaust survivors; Leslie said a new, multimedia version is planned. The project has also linked a steady core of volunteers with elderly members in need of help, with such chores as shopping or trips to the doctor or help with paperwork.

The Danises pointed out that while congregations tend to focus on younger families with children, at Temple Emanu-El — as in other synagogues — a growing proportion of congregants are over 60, often empty-nesters and retirees, with concerns and interests different from those of younger members.

“We wanted to bring them back into the congregation,” Leslie said.

‘Finding your passion’

Dorlen, who is also a psychoanalyst, has a therapy practice in Summit. She works with families, couples, and individuals, dealing with issues like financial stress, post-partum depression, and concerns about organ transplantation.

She laid out a 10-point plan for audience members to boost their resilience as they age, starting with “taking an inner journey.” She urged them to go out and buy a journal and to write in it about goals not fulfilled and things that need to be done, financial and otherwise. She suggested that they note at least three things that they are grateful for.

Next came “finding your passion.” Dorlen suggested that could be something so pleasurable one loses track of time, or doing something that helps other people, an activity, she said, “that really does make you feel good.”

Other points including learning a new skill, taking care of mental and physical health, incorporating study into one’s life, and “doing homework.” The latter means researching three years ahead and anticipating any major change in lifestyle or location.

As for remaining active, Dorlen urged audience members to make a list summarizing all their skills, “from age one.” She said only 13 percent of retirees really stop work completely, and as people live longer, many face the need to continue earning. With a fresh look at all their capabilities, they could find ways to bring in income that could open up new horizons.

Gloria Leibowitz of Elizabeth endorsed Dorlen’s view that women are generally better prepared for retirement. “All their lives they do other things. Men don’t — unless they have a hobby,” she said. Doing something you’re passionate about is the secret to that “second half” happiness, she agreed.

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