East Bay senior home trying to raise money for 21st century plan

The stereotype is that people go to nursing homes to die. But like many residents of Oakland's Home for Jewish Parents, Bea Hess came to thrive. She moved from New York to the Fruitvale facility 11 years ago to live near her daughter and be among other Jews.

Hess, who celebrated her 100th birthday last week, personifies an emerging class of resident — healthy but aging, needing some assistance but not full-time care.

As Hess' generation grows larger and lives longer, the facilities formerly known as "old age homes" are looking for good ways to bring their active, vital, elderly residents into the 21st century. The Home for Jewish Parents is no exception.

"There's been a tremendous change in the past eight years to what the new home is going to be," said Hank Bornstein, a Los Angeles-based consultant to the home. "There have been philosophic changes in long-term and managed care. We're adapting to what the future will be."

The problem for the East Bay home is the cost of modernization.

Ten years ago — anticipating a growing senior population as well as Fruitvale's changing demography — the home's board of directors began planning for the future.

After securing a 5.8-acre parcel on Danville's El Camino Real — just a half-mile east of the Blackhawk shopping center — the board conducted feasibility studies and hired a consulting firm. Architectural renderings of the 164-unit residential facility show wings devoted to five different types of care, including assisted living, short- and long-term care, an Alzheimer's unit and 60 skilled-nursing beds.

All that appears to be lacking are the funds to break ground and a name to chisel on the building's entryway.

"People have a `wait and see' attitude," Bornstein said. "They want to see a shovel in the ground before they give money. But if everyone waits, there will be no shovel. We need commitments to balance bond issues. In any kind of campaign like this, you need a `lead gift' from the sort of donor after whom the facility can then be named.

"We're talking in the $1 to $5 million range."

Total cost for the new facility is about $15 million, not including the parcel of land, which is already paid in full. Thus far about $1 million has been raised. An additional $2-$4 million is needed to break ground on time without taking on a hefty mortgage.

According to Phil Harris, the fund-raising committee's co-chair, the East Bay Jewish community is definitely responding to the plea — just not in large enough numbers.

"When we ask, we don't get any no's," he said. "Unfortunately, we can't seem to get past the $100,000 mark with any one person. There's got to be somebody out there with $1 million just burning a hole in his pocket."

Meanwhile, interest in the project is great, said Erwin Ferer, co-chair of the fund-raising committee. Recently 70 of 85 invited tenants from Walnut Creek's Rossmoor senior housing development attended a question-and-answer session about the new home.

"The next step after Rossmoor" — an independent senior living center –"is a home like this. We have to have a place for them," Ferer said.

Bea Hess' daughter, Carolyn Vollmer, isn't sure her mother will live long enough to move with the home. Still, she completely supports the new facility.

"The move is essential," said Vollmer, who lives in Hayward. "The facility has been needing so many repairs. And the neighborhood is no longer attractive.

"In the 1950s this was the `diamond district' of Oakland. It felt Jewish. And now, well, I go to see my mother every day. But I won't go alone at night." The area isn't safe for visitors or residents, she said.

Harris added that the new location was chosen for such reasons, and will draw upon a user population that spreads as far as San Jose and Sacramento.

The new location is walking distance from a movie theater and shopping center. A Judah L. Magnes Museum gallery and gift shop might also be located in the home. All efforts are being directed toward competing with more modern, yet secular, homes for the aged.

"We don't have the right institution [right now]. Consequently, most of our [East Bay] Jewish population who can afford it end up scattered at private institutions," Harris said, adding that many express interest in living in a Jewish home.

"There seems to be a resurrection of people wanting to be Jewish as they get older," Ferer added. "They go into nonsectarian, modern homes. We lose a lot that way. The parents aren't happy, but their children are."

Vollner understands all too well.

"I don't keep a kosher home; I could care less. But there are a lot of people to whom kashrut means a lot. And there's a synagogue [inside the facility], too. The rabbi, Barry Ring, [is] not ordained but he performs all the duties and knows the residents by their Hebrew names. It means a lot," she said. "I'm very enthused about the move. Our board of directors is made up of positive thinkers and I'm sure this will come to fruition."