A Partnership Model to Reduce Isolation and Enhance the Well-Being of Survivors in Palm Beach County’s Gated-Communities

Jenni Frumer, LCSW
Associate Executive Director
and
Eva Weiss, MEd
Coordinator, Holocaust Program

INTRODUCTION

Bringing Survivors together informally is an important aspect of our professional work, along with the provision of other home-based services, including assistance with reparations and restitution applications. Alpert Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Palm Beach County (AJFCS), established in 1974 has always offered services to Holocaust survivors. However, it was not until 1997 with funding from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, were designated professional staff and specialized services established to provide formal and community outreach to Survivors. AJFCS, which serves the central and northern communities, serves approximately 600 hundred Survivors each year, with two-full time case managers and the support of other staff in the Long-Term Care Division. Southeast Florida has the second largest numbers of Holocaust Survivors in North America.

Sixty-eight percent of all older adults in Palm Beach County are Jewish, and is it estimated that there may be as many as 18,000 Holocaust Survivors residing in the area. Palm Beach, like many retirement destinations, presents some unique challenges. Retirees, including Survivors, most often choose senior gated-communities to call “their homes”. These changes in the demographics have challenged all aspects of the community. The diverse population groups do not naturally interact with one another as a collaborative and supportive community. Behind the beautifully manicured lawns and swaying palm trees, the community, by virtue of its gated nature, unless revitalized could be likened to a potential “ghetto”. Property tax increases and exorbitant homeowner’s insurance rates increase the financial strain upon the many low-income residents. The result is that many low-income older residents feel “stuck” there, without supports, yet are unable to afford to relocate. They are often “invisible” to the younger, more vibrant retirees who have continued to move into the community because of its affordable housing costs. However, the majority are not invested in the community (which could also be perceived as a bedroom community), since a large proportion of younger retirees are required to find part-time work to support themselves.

These developments are age-segregated neighborhoods and the majority of residents do not have their children or grandchildren living close by who could offer support and care when needed. As they age, it is not uncommon for frail, older adults to become increasingly isolated from their healthier neighbors. Senior communities have tended to focus on recreation, an important recognized aspect of successful aging. However, this focus on “resort living” has often been to the detriment of their isolated neighbors. Lack of transportation further complicates access to socialization activities. Social isolation, one of the most significant problems evident in gated communities, is linked to higher rates of disease and premature death. One of the serious gaps in successful healthy aging is social isolation, which has been “linked to an increased risk for morbidity, mortality, and cardiovascular disease” (Hawkley et al., 2003, Sorkin et al., 2002). Even more alarming is the recognition that “social isolation has been shown to increase risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease among older adults” (Wilson et al., 2007). The very design of gated communities may create challenges to accessing the “outside” formal and informal network of services that could impact and reduce social isolation.

SUCCESSFUL COLLABORATIONS

While AJFCS has continued to engage Survivor’s in the successful annual Café Europa, it has long been a mission to provide more regular opportunities for Survivors to participate in a drop-in center program model. In today’s economic climate the only way to make this dream any sort of reality was identifying committed community partners, each of whom would bring their specific strengths, resources and focus.

In August 2009, AJFCS partnered with the Volen Center (VC), Ruth Rales Jewish Family & Children’s Service (RRJFS) and a few months later, NEXT GENERATIONS joined the partnership, to create Eat & Schmooze a drop-in program which meets twice a month.

Over the years, AJFCS has developed an excellent working relationship with VC, a senior center. AJFCS had been invited to conduct several workshops on cultural competence, specifically to train their center staff (including their van drivers at 6am in the morning), on issues of working with Jewish older adults and Holocaust Survivors. The VC’s commitment to enhancing the lives of all older adults and specifically Holocaust Survivors became a vested interest and they were a natural partner. In addition, VC already offered significant programming for older adults and the resources they brought to bear, included transportation and meals, as a federal meal sit for older adults. Our sister agency, the RRJFS, was invited to join in the collaboration. Palm Beach County is the largest county east of the Mississippi and is geographically divided; so that there are two Jewish Federations and two Jewish Family Services. RRJFS service area is in the southern end of the county and they are separately funded by the Claims Conference to serve the Survivors who live in South County. Members of NEXT GENERATIONS, who are primarily children and grandchildren of Survivors, function as volunteers and bring an important socialization and supportive aspect to the overall drop-in center milieu.

PROGRAM DESIGN AND MODEL

Data from survey responses from Holocaust survivors was used to strategically plan for upcoming programs as the population continues to age. It was agreed that the design of the program initially would be organic in nature. Existing clients of the agencies were informed through telephone calls and mailings. Survivors provided the initial feedback that they were interested in just getting together and “schmoozing”. The original hours for the drop-in program were 9am -3pm. However, some Survivors travelling from the central and northern communities felt this was too long of a day for them and the hours were adjusted to 1pm, immediately after lunch. The focus of the program is to engage Survivors in informal discussion, interaction and especially, acknowledgement, in a safe, comfortable setting with staff and volunteers themselves offering introductions, serving coffee, lunch and desserts.

The first event was attended by 300 Survivors from all over Palm Beach County. There was a welcome and introduction to the Eat & Schmooze concept by staff and the rest of the event was unstructured. AJFCS staff coordinate registration at each session twice a month and together with the staff from VC , RRJFS and NEXT GENERATIONS, help people find seats, make introductions, sit with those who appear to need someone to talk to, serve coffee, deliver meals, clean up and help people with their departure arrangements on the vans.

Some participants seem to enjoy this experience; others expected it to be more like the annual Café Europa setting and were disappointed.

Over the past year, based on survey responses, the program has been reshaped to begin at 10am. The first hour is dedicated to a non-structured “schmooze” time, after which from 11am – 12pm there is a program, which is planned months in advance so announcements of upcoming programs are available. At 12pm lunch is served and at 1:30pm the vans are available for the majority of Survivors who chose to leave at this time. Those who wish to stay have the option of transportation at 3pm.

Challenges to this collaborative model are primarily around issues of logistics. All participants need to be registered for the transportation and meals. For some Survivors registration may trigger a sense of discomfort (federal programs require paperwork). Survivors who wish to attend a session also need to call ahead to make a reservation for a ride in the van and also for a meal. Staff of the JFS’s assists Survivors in this process.

PARTICIPATION AND PROGRAMMING

The approximate number of Survivors participating at each session is forty-five. This number tends to be higher during the winter months and depending on the program being offered and the month (Jewish Holidays), the participation may be as high as 80-100 Survivors.

While the programming was purposely designed initially to be minimal two structured programs were offered during the winter. The Red Cross Tracing Program and the US Holocaust Museum presented at Eat & Schmooze. Initially, we thought that this type of programming, especially by such prestigious institutions would be perfect for the participants of Eat & Schmooze and although both events were attended feedback revealed that the Survivors felt the session was too planned and what they primarily desired was to simply be together in a safe, dedicated environment with one another.

Over the year, with Survivor’s input, we have tried a greater variety of programs between 11am and 12pm, which have included: watching Yiddish movies, playing bingo, a Purim party, a Chanukah party, performance by a group of kindergartners from a Jewish Day School and interactive discussion around improvisational skits . Survivors also requested a calendar of upcoming programs so they could plan ahead.

SURVIVOR RESPONSES

After approximately 6 months surveys were left on the tables at each session offering an opportunity for Survivors to make suggestions about programming and also to identify their interests. Consistently, survey responses show that over 50% of attendees wish to have the drop-in center program available at least twice a month. Over 64% use the VC vans to transport them to and from the program. With regard to interests, Survivors were encouraged to identify their specific interests: 72% have an interest in Singing/Music; 69% in Discussion Groups; 25% in Board Games; 8% in Crafts; 53% in (Yiddish) movies; 17% would prefer no programs at all. Within discussion topics identified, 89% had an interest in hearing about Israel, 58% Current Events; 61% Yad Vashem; 36% Second Generation; 11% Reparations Updates; 31% Wellness; 42% Exercising the Mind; 22% Open Discussion/No Topics and 64% identified an interest in discussing Aging Issues/Staying Healthy. Suggestions have included: “Hold a Health Fair” and “Tell us about services that are affordable.”

CONCLUSION

A core group of participants has evolved who see the Eat and Schmooze as a true home and try to attend each event for the networking, and there are those participants who come only when they have an interest in the program being offered that day, and there are those who attend only when they feel physically able. All the surveys indicate that they want the event to continue and feel that they are being reached out to in a positive way that acknowledges their uniqueness as Survivors.

Eat &Schmooze is a successful example of community programming because it meets a genuine need in the community, which reduces isolation, enhances the socialization of Survivors, utilizes community resources and establishes the partnerships that support Survivors and contribute to their sense of well-being.

References:

Hawkley, L.C., Burleson, M.H., Bernston, G.C., and Cacioppo, J.T. (2003). Loneliness in Everyday Life: Cardiovascular Activity, Psychosocial Context, and Health Behaviors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(1), 105-120.

Sorkin, D., Rook, K.S., and Lu, J.L. (2002). Loneliness, Lack of Emotional Support, Lack of Companionship, and the Likelihood of Having a Heart Condition in an Elderly Sample. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24(4), 290 – 298.

Wilson, R.S., Krueger. K.R., Arnold. S.E., Schneider. J.A., Kelly, J.F., Barnes, L.L., Tang, X., and Bennett, D.A. (2007). Loneliness and Risk of Alzheimer Disease. Archives of Gen Psychiatry, 64, 234-240.

Engaging 50+ Residents in Community Service. Alliance for Children and Families Magazine. Issue 3, 2009. http://magazine.alliance1.org/content/issue3-09/engaging-50-residents-community-service

Impact and Innovation: Effective Models and Practices in Serving Older Adults. Alliance For Children and Families; New Age of Aging. Case Studies, January 2010. http://newageofaging.org/files/CaseStudyReportFinal.pdf

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