Jewish Senior Life reviews its accomplishments, challenges after its first five years.
Five years ago, two major community agencies came together to provide more efficient services to Metro Detroit’s sizable Jewish elderly population under one umbrella organization known as Jewish Senior Life (JSL). Today, the agency’s leaders look back with pride at what has been accomplished while being keenly aware of the challenges that lie ahead.
JSL was created from the melding of the former Jewish Home and Aging Services (JHAS) and Jewish Apartments and Services (JAS) after more than two years of planning and development to centralize and streamline services to one of the nation’s largest senior Jewish populations.
The leadership team includes Rochelle Upfal, CEO; Carol Rosenberg, JSL Foundation director; and Matthew Lester, new board president, founder and CEO of Bloomfield Hills-based Princeton Enterprises, which manages apartment buildings and real estate developments across the country.
“Our board is stronger and better than ever,” said Lester, adding that the board includes a variety of professionals in the areas of real estate, finance, marketing and geriatrics, among others. “We also have two NextGen [younger generation ages 25-40] liaisons.”
The most daunting challenge for JSL is that the average age of its residents, along with their needs, has increased significantly in the last few decades. According to the 2005 Detroit Jewish Population Study, which was updated in 2010, the Detroit Jewish community has the largest percentage of older adults outside of Sunbelt retirement communities.
Data also showed that Metro Detroit, among other cities in the study, has the highest percentage (48 percent) of persons age 75 and older who live alone.
Thiry-five years ago, the average age of JSL tenants was 78; today it is 87. At the Norma Jean and Edward Meer Apartments in West Bloomfield, it is 89. The good news is that people are living longer, due in part to improved health care and a greater variety of services designed to allow seniors to age in place. The challenge is continuing to meet the needs of this aging population without compromising standards or quality of care.
“The age of our residents is our greatest source of pride because our standard of care is excellent; it’s also our biggest challenge because of the greater needs,” Lester said.
According to Upfal, most people do not make the move into senior housing until they are in their mid-80s. As a result, there are more residents who require walkers, wheelchairs and private aides because of physical and mental issues.
Rosenberg believes an older population should not be off-putting to current or potential residents.
“People [naturally] find their own level of people they want to be with,” she said.
One of the innovations Upfal is proudest of is the “One Number” program, a joint project of JSL, Jewish Family Service, JVS and the Jewish Community Center, with support from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.
Information about housing, programs, services, resources and all things related to aging in Jewish Detroit can be accessed from a single phone number: (248) 661-1836.
Another notable accomplishment of the last five years is the renovation of the Anna & Meyer Prentis Apartments in Oak Park. Financed by low-income government tax credits, studio apartments were converted into one-bedroom units and the communal spaces, such as the lobby, were completely redesigned.
The Harriett & Ben Teitel Apartments in Oak Park also are undergoing renovations that include more communal space and a community garden. Low-income tax credits are also being used to finance these improvements, which include converting bathtubs to showers and various cosmetic updates.
Meer Apartments in West Bloomfield soon will be getting a $1 million facelift that includes a complete renovation of the dining room, lobby and other common areas. This project will be funded by refinancing the existing mortgage, according to Lester.
New Dining Program
If Jews are passionate about anything, it is their food, and providing kosher meals that meet the nutritional needs and gastronomical tastes of such a large and discerning group has been an ongoing challenge.
After decades of using a variety of catering companies and food service providers, JSL instituted a major change last spring by taking over the operation of the dining program.
This involved hiring more than 100 new employees, including a director of dining services, several chefs, waitresses and other kitchen staff.
The change has received mixed reviews from the tenants. Some voiced complaints about small portions; others say they have gone back to their apartments to make oatmeal or frozen waffles because they could not eat what was served for dinner.
“I came here so I wouldn’t have to cook,” said one resident. “Now I’m sorry because what I cooked was better than I have here.”
Other residents say the food has improved since JSL took over the operation. Administrators acknowledge that food is a matter of taste and preference and that as people age their taste buds change.
From a management standpoint, Lester said moving the food service program in-house has resulted in lower costs, more menu variety, and less waste and spoilage. He said the administration wants to be sensitive to the complaints and opinions of the residents, who have the opportunity to participate in dining committee meetings with the food services director.
Upfal said staff is looking at changes that might include providing more meals during the week or offering light lunch options, such as soups and sandwiches. Currently, most of the dining rooms serve dinner Monday through Friday; three daily meals are served at the Fleischman Residence/Blumberg Plaza in West Bloomfield and at the Margot and Warren Coville Assisted Living Apartments in Oak Park.
While it would certainly be less expensive to provide non-kosher food to such a large number of residents, the leadership of JSL has no plans to pursue that option.
“Serving kosher food is very important to who we are; it’s part of our ‘Yiddishkeit,’” Rosenberg said.
The many activities, discussion groups, speakers and other programs received high praise from residents across the board. A recent town hall-style meeting with U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich., drew more than 150 people. A grant from the Jewish Women’s Foundation enabled JSL to offer a book club, led by a professional facilitator, in Oak Park and West Bloomfield. A film club is next on the agenda.
“They want to be active, hear new speakers, learn new things,” Upfal said.
Residents voiced appreciation for the staff social workers and the “live-ins,” on-site aides who provide assistance when needed.
“They don’t walk, they run [when a resident requires help],” said a Meer resident.
With such a large elderly population, it is to be expected that other senior living options have joined the marketplace. In addition to senior facilities such as Trowbridge and Heritage, both in Southfield, and Fox Run in Novi, the most well-appointed “new kid on the block” is All Seasons, a new apartment residence less than a mile away from the Meer and Hechtman buildings in West Bloomfield.
All Seasons offers one- and two-bedroom apartments, with monthly rent ranging from $3,499-$4,500, including two full meals a day, biweekly cleaning services and the use of the pool and clubhouse at the nearby Aldingbrooke apartment complex.
By comparison, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment at Meer is about $1,800; the rent at Hechtman is slightly less. In addition, some residents receive income-based assistance from HUD, while the Prentis, Teitel and Hechtman I apartment buildings receive some federal government funding.
“We provide services whether or not people can afford it,” Lester said.
While Upfal and her colleagues acknowledge the competition, they are not troubled by it.
“We may not be the newest, but our staffing levels, on-site social workers, activities and free transportation make us desirable,” Upfal said. “Our competitors may have pieces of these things, but not all of them.”
Lester said senior housing is a growth area with plenty of room for new players.
“It’s refreshing to know we’re competing well — we’re a bargain,” he said.
According to Lester, the financial strength of the organization is a source of pride, including a balanced annual budget of $23 million. During the 2014-15 fiscal year, JSL received $474,203 from Federation, with additional funding coming from various other funds, grants and donations from community benefactors.
In the coming years, fundraising and increased philanthropic support will be even more important.
“We’re able to do it because of our tremendously generous Jewish community,” Rosenberg said. “Old people are not sexy— they’re old and wrinkled — but we have people who understand that.”
“Our community is aging rapidly, and we believe this trend will continue,” Upfal said.
She and her team have been making long-range plans to meet this challenge, including increasing or augmenting the current facilities, establishing an Aging Services Committee, expanding the adult day program at the Brown Center locations in West Bloomfield and Southfield, recruiting para-chaplains to visit Jewish men and women living in non-Jewish facilities, and finding new ways to use technology to help seniors stay safe and feel connected.
Moving into revenue-producing endeavors, such as for-profit housing and home health care, has also been discussed.
JSL is looking toward creating more programs such as Village in the Woods, a community-based organization in the Huntington Woods area that supports people wishing to age at home by providing concierge services, health, wellness and social programs, in addition to volunteer opportunities and neighbor-to-neighbor connections.
“More [grown] children are moving out of town,” Upfal said. “It’s essential to help people have community.”
Stepped-up marketing programs such as open houses, tours, incentives to current and future residents, and outreach to hospital social workers and discharge planners is also part of JSL’s plan to counteract competition and the effects of an economy that is still less than booming.
“Our goal is to keep people independent for as long as possible,” Rosenberg said. “A community that doesn’t take care of its Jewish elderly is no community at all.”
For more information on JSL residences, services and programs, go to www.jslmi.org or call (248) 661-1836.
By Ronelle Grier | Contributing Writer