Volunteers to aid expanded healing center program

Visiting Jewish nursing-home residents on holidays brings them company and good cheer. But it's not enough to sustain them, according to those who work regularly with the residents.

That's why Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, is joining forces with the Senior Outreach Program of Jewish Family and Children's Services and the San Francisco Ministry to Nursing Homes to train volunteers for regular visits to Jewish residents of San Francisco nursing homes.

"We're really going to focus on the spiritual side," said Rabbi Jeffery Silberman, Jewish community chaplain. "This is not just to send a friendly visitor in there."

Instead, Silberman said, the new program seeks volunteers willing to commit an hour a week for one year to "bring a sense of the Jewish tradition and a sense that [the residents] are still cared for as Jews and as human beings."

Volunteers, who will be screened starting next month, will undergo an initial mandatory two-hour training session to prepare them for their work. Throughout the year, the program will provide ongoing educational forums on topics seniors face, from legal issues to health problems.

"Loss is a common phenomenon for people in nursing homes," Silberman said. "They are isolated. They've lost family, lost independence. Nobody is attentive to the spiritual dimension of that experience and how religion can be a supportive and caring dimension of their lives at this point."

Even the traditional holiday visits benefit Jewish residents, says Florence Nacamulli, 50, a resident of San Francisco. She visits nursing homes on Jewish holidays through the Senior Outreach Project of Jewish Family and Children's Services.

"It makes the Jewish residents feel special because everyone is gathering around to celebrate their holiday," she said. "It also brings some Yiddishkeit into the homes."

Nacamulli said she and other volunteers "always leave feeling very good, feeling like we've touched somebody that needs touching."

The new program, however, "would allow a more in-depth relationship to be built," said Sheryl Groden, JFCS caseworker for senior services and volunteer coordinator for the senior outreach project.