smiling senior couple with an older woman sitting on an older man's lap
Credit: Andrea Hamilton

Jewish Senior Life Continues the Jewish Population Study Conversation

Kenneth Goss
Kenneth Goss Jackie Headapohl | Detroit Jewish News

Kenneth Goss
Nancy Siegel Heinrich

As the president and the CEO of Jewish Senior Life of Metropolitan Detroit, we applaud the Jewish News for its discussion of some of the statistics identified in the recently released Jewish Population Study spearheaded by the Jewish Federation (“Changing Senior Needs and Preferences,” Nov. 14, page 10). In this op-ed, and in greater depth on our website (, we continue the conversation.

The JN identified several trends and asks two important questions: Would Jewish communal resources be better invested by providing more services and resources to Jewish elderly in their homes or in non-Jewish sponsored facilities and, are there any scenarios where the Jewish community might step back from owning and operating brick-and-mortar senior housing facilities?

Nancy Siegel Heinrich
Nancy Siegel Heinrich Jackie Headapohl | Detroit Jewish News

The Board of Directors of Jewish Senior Life asked itself these same questions in its most recent strategic planning effort. The board concluded that there were other trends also prevailing that will impact the direction of JSL and has entered into a master planning effort to dig into all of these issues in depth so that plans can be made to position JSL for the future. Some of the trends the board identified include:

Changing Face of JSL Communities:

  • Older adults are already aging in place … until they can’t. They still come to live at JSL residences in similar numbers, but they come to us later in life and more frail. The average age in our non-government subsidized buildings is 87-90. Given that the oldest baby boomers are in their early 70s, we believe that the community will not really feel the impact of this population bulge of older adults for another 10 to 15 years.

Economic Challenges:

  • Baby boomers are not saving adequately for retirement. Thirty-five percent of those 65 and older have saved less than $50,000 for their retirements. Studies show that most Americans worry their savings will fall short in retirement; the average household spends more than $40,000 per year in retirement, but the average person collects less than $17,000 in Social Security.
  • Our elders are less likely to have family caregivers available to assist them, physically and financially. Out Migration of adult children to other states, delayed retirements of adult children and their spouses and higher college debt all play a role.
  • The tight labor market is putting pressure on caregiver wages. Nationwide, we are experiencing difficulty hiring and retaining frontline staff to provide care for our elders. The most efficient use of this shrinking labor pool is in congregate settings.
  • While senior housing options are abundant for the wealthy, and JSL has subsidized housing for those with incomes below 50 percent of the Oakland County median (i.e., less than $25,000 per year for an individual and $34,000 for a couple), there is insufficient affordable senior housing for moderate-income individuals. JSL is concerned about this large portion of our population and how to serve them.

Social Challenges:

  • Research indicates that social isolation negatively impacts quality of life. Senior communities provide a remedy to this isolation.

Given these trends and facts, and those identified by the JN, we ask the community to consider the following questions:

How are the baby boomers going to pay for their preference to “age in place” even if we refocus community dollars on assisting them to do so? Today, JSL provides housing for approximately 350 individuals on our Oak Park campus and 140 on our West Bloomfield campus whose incomes are less than 50 percent of the Oakland County median. Of those, almost 300 have annual incomes of less than $15,000.

The current cost to the community of serving these individuals (who are aging in place in their JSL apartments) including safe and attractive housing, five subsidized dinners a week, daily activities, security, service coordination, home care services and social opportunities, is less than $20 per day. It is hard to imagine a scenario where the community could serve as many individuals in their homes at anywhere near this level at anywhere near the current cost.

In addition, JSL also already provides Jewish content and friendly visits to hundreds of individuals outside our communities through its Jewish Community Chaplaincy and Outreach and Holocaust Survivors and Families programs, additional support to those suffering from dementia and other memory-related processes at the Dorothy and Peter Brown Jewish Community Adult Day (in partnership with JVS) programs, and prepares and subsidizes 22,000 kosher Meals on Wheels annually for NCJW’s Kosher Meals on Wheels Program (also in partnership with JFS).

Who are we going to hire to care for all the individuals preferring to age in place and how will we be able to afford their services? Although congregate housing may not be the preference or option for many in our community, the most efficient way to provide daily care for our elders is in communal settings, not in individual homes. While the community may need to raise more funding to support older adults who choose to live in their homes, there is no reason we can imagine for eliminating these efficient and affordable options for our older adults in the near future, especially in light of the anticipated silver tsunami that may hit senior housing in the next 10 to 15 years.

Where are the identified naturally occurring retirement communities? The JN states that elders wish to age in place in naturally occurring retirement communities. We know of very few local naturally occurring retirement communities, and the ones we are aware of would not serve the less financially secure elderly of our community.

Is aging in place the healthiest alternative for older adults who become socially isolated once they can no longer drive or when their spouses pass away? The benefits of aging in communities where there are opportunities for daily human interaction with others beside caregivers make our residences beneficial options combating harmful isolation of our seniors, especially for those whose adult children are not there to provide support.

JSL has 869 apartments, and there are 18,000 individuals over the age of 65 in our community. JSL acknowledges that it will never serve the entire population of older adults in our community, far from it. But as a community, we are fortunate to have six communities on two campuses where life is celebrated every day with the older adults we serve.

What the future holds we can’t predict with accuracy, but you can be sure that we will continue to wrestle with all these questions and more and serve our older adults in the warmest, most loving, supportive and most efficient ways possible.

Kenneth Goss is president of Jewish Senior Life and Nancy Siegel Heinrich is the CEO.