Seniors | East Bay Jewish groups join to address the Longevity Revolution

To those who hope to live forever, be careful what you wish for. It’s starting to look as if some of us will.

Advances in medicine and public health have dramatically increased life expectancy, averaging 76 years for American men, 81 years for women. Today, centenarians are the fastest-rising demographic group in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Institute on Aging.

Sounds like a good thing. But with more people living longer and the silver tsunami of retiring baby boomers beginning to hit shore, society needs to prepare.

That includes the Jewish community.

According to the U.S. Administration on Aging, the number of Americans 65 or older will top 70 million by 2030, making up 20 percent of the population. The Jewish population skews even older, with one 2007 study showing 18 percent of U.S. Jews were 65 or older, compared with 12 percent among the rest of the population.

To respond to the challenges, the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay have teamed up with many East Bay congregations and the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living to launch “The Longevity Revolution,” a series of forums on the subject.

The first event of the year will be a Feb. 9 panel discussion at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek. Rabbis, social workers, gerontologists and managed care experts will take part. The same panel will meet on Feb. 20 at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El.

Participating experts, who will eventually offer workable responses to the challenges of longevity, agree two sides exist in this revolution. The project is scheduled to proceed through 2014 but may well go longer.

On one hand, 80 is the new 50, as healthier seniors extend their productive years well into old age.

On the other hand, with longer life, the more susceptible one becomes to dementia and other disabilities associated with aging. To care for millions of seniors with age-related health issues, it will take more than a village.

“The question of how we prepare for increased longevity is an important communal issue,” says federation CEO Jim Brandt. “It’s one that will be more important as we go into the future. We wanted to develop an initiative to look at the issue and bring together Jewish community leaders and experts in the field, and begin to develop a plan to respond to the conditions we’re seeing.”

Andrew Sharlach

Social worker and Jewish community activist Marjorie Wolf, who chairs the series’ committee, hopes the series will spark a serious communitywide discussion on the subject.

“How do we keep people engaged and feeling they have something to offer?”  she asks. “ They retire and ask, ‘now what do I do?’ They have a lot to offer but may feel withdrawn and not valued.

“There’s a real opportunity for the Jewish community to take advantage of that skill set and bring them back into the community, help them not feel isolated and help them be prosperous and grow.”

One of the experts sitting on the Feb. 9 panel is Janet Brush, managing director of Senior Alternatives, an East Bay care management and home care agency. For years she has anticipated the coming tidal wave of retirees, and worries how society will cope.

Brush thinks affordable senior home care will be the most critical aspect. Out-of-pocket costs of private services could be backbreaking. At the same time, the Medi-Cal system  (under which seniors must be destitute to obtain home care), may be at risk of breaking once millions of elderly baby boomers need services.

She wonders how seniors on fixed incomes will come up with the funds to pay for the unreimbursable costs of home care. “There is nothing — other than running through your entire savings and going on Medi-Cal,” Brush says, “which is the only time the government will kick in with custodial care. Even that amount of money is minimal.”

Brush knows from experience that most seniors don’t have the resources to buy all the care-giving services they need. Between workers’ compensation, insurance, payroll taxes and other overhead costs, home care companies charge rates of up to $200 a day, which can add up day in and day out.

“[Seniors] stay at home, they are at risk, or worse they have to go to a nursing home and spend down all their money,” Brush adds. “They’re not good environments. There’s little quality of life.”

Janet Brush

To mitigate these options, the Bay Area Jewish community has rallied to help seniors. The Jewish Home in San Francisco has long been considered one of the finest institutions of its kind in California. JFCS, both in the East Bay and the S.F.-based agency, have made senior services a priority.

JFCS East Bay executive director Avi Rose will participate in “Longevity Revolution” forums. He says his agency will continue to offer its traditional home care and geriatric management services, but admits that as the boomers retire, more will be needed.

“It’s only going to increase because the cultural trend of people wanting to stay at home is more pronounced,” Rose says. “One thing we’re doing is creating opportunities for meaningful volunteer engagement, because that’s something people are looking for.”

Rose agrees with Brush that a gap in home care services exists and will worsen over time.

“It’s a huge hole in the health care system,” he says. “It’s so big that people don’t know how to address it. As boomers age, people will push for a different response, but I’m not necessarily optimistic about it.”

One participating expert with a glass-half-full view is Andrew Sharlach, director of U.C. Berkeley’s Center for the Advanced Study of Aging Services. He considers the surge in life expectancy an “accomplishment,” though not without its challenges.

In his research, Sharlach emphasizes “constructive outcomes” for seniors and the development of what he calls “aging-friendly communities.”

The key issue, he says, is the degree to which society engages older adults. It’s trickier in the United States than, say, Norway or Japan, he explains, because of the American trait of rugged individualism. That credo dictates that we solve our own problems and spurn help from government or other sources.

“We have this historical tendency to see older adults as a problem,” Sharlach says. “Yes, as we get older we do have more health problems and need more help, but up until about 75, older adults are net contributors, as opposed to net recipients, and it doesn’t change at 75 or just because you’re sick. We have the opportunity to engage older adults both as contributors and helping one another.”

He points to examples of older adults who have come together to create support organizations to help one another thrive, such as Israel’s Supportive Community Program. It offers services for seniors living in designated locales, with the aim of keeping them in their homes longer by delivering those services directly to them.

Marjorie Wolf

Closer to home, Sharlach notes that Jewish retirees can stay engaged by volunteering at synagogues or other Jewish agencies.

“What I would like to see is each of our Jewish institutions talking more seriously about these issues,” he says. “For synagogues to ask: ‘Who are our members? Are their needs being met? Are we making sure age itself is not a barrier to participating fully?’ ”

Though Brush applauds efforts by Jewish and other faith communities to address the growing problem — the Longevity Revolution being a case in point — she believes the looming societal challenges of aging will prove too big to be solved by religious or charitable efforts alone.

“Almost every other country has a socialized system where care giving is centralized through government, and people get the care they need,” Brush says. “We need to figure out how to care for this monstrous amount of seniors we’re going to have.”

Whatever local, state and federal government agencies decide to do, area aging experts believe the Jewish community should do all it can to help its seniors, especially as that population grows.

What, they ask, could be more Jewish.

“One of our longest-standing fundamental principles is honoring our parents,” says Rose. “Not just that their needs are met, but that they are not isolated from community. There’s strong consensus about this — but getting it translated into resources can be a challenge.

“We need to be our best selves, and one of the values is honoring, respecting and taking care of people throughout all stages of life.”

The next public forums on The Longevity Revolution take place at 3 p.m. Feb. 9 at Congregation B’nai Shalom, 74 Eckley Lane, Walnut Creek; and 7 p.m. Feb. 20 at Congregation Beth El, 1301 Oxford St., Berkeley.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at