Caregiving – The Big Issue No One is Talking About

By Michelle K. Wolf

We are living in a time in which the Jewish community is divided on many topics, from the best path forward for peace and security in Israel to the debate if the greatest anti-Semitic threats are coming from the extreme left or the extreme right. But there is one huge and growing societal problem that cuts across all religious denominations and political affiliations that almost no one is talking about – family caregiving to an older adult relative, chronically ill spouse or dependent adult children with disabilities.

According to the National Alliance on Caregiving, there are an estimated 43.5 million adults in the United States who have provided unpaid care to an adult or a child in the prior 12 months. While it impossible to determine exactly what percentage of those caregivers are Jewish, we do know from Jewish demographers that the American Jewish population (especially the non-Orthodox) trends older than most Americans, due to a number of factors, including delayed parenting and a low birthrate.

Get a group of middle-class Jewish baby boomers together and within minutes, you will hear the problems families are facing taking care of an aging parent. How can we ensure that Dad is able to keep living at the family home when he’s no longer able to keep on top of his monthly bills? Mom put her house keys in the refrigerator yesterday and couldn’t find them for hours. Or even worse, a grandmother fell down in her kitchen, broke her hip and was down on the floor for hours before the housekeeper came and called 911.

And this issue doesn’t just impact the elderly. As actor Rob Lowe wrote in a recent column in USA Today about taking care of his mother with breast cancer, about 25 percent of family caregivers are millennials, who often feel forced to choose between their careers and caring for their aging parents and grandparents. He pointed out the high financial and emotional toil that caregiving takes on those providing care, often neglecting their own health needs to ensure that a loved one is getting everything he/she needs from medical professionals, social services agencies and social enrichment.

While many Jewish Family Service agencies around the country provide case management and other vital services for lower income families, there are few Federations, synagogues and other Jewish institutions actively working to help family caregivers who make too much money to qualify for government-funded programs.

Where are the national Jewish conferences addressing this issue of the “gray tsunami” heading our way? How can we get the mega-donors to focus on the issues of caring for the older members of our community? And while we all need to be thinking about the Jewish future, should we expend scarce philanthropic funds on yet another really cool app that will magically turn apathetic young Jewish professionals into engaged, affiliated Jews?

At the grassroots, level, there are many models and strategies that can help family caregivers with this most holy work.

On the shloshim of her mother’s passing, Michelle Porjes, a distinguished Jewish educator in Los Angeles, established a Facebook group, LA Elderly whose goal is support and exchange of information. For the previous ten years, she had found herself smack in the middle of the “sandwich generation” raising children and taking care of parents at the same time. She said that in the years that followed, she interacted with an imperfect system that added additional stress to an already challenging situation. She felt that our elderly who had already contributed to society as well as the family members who care for them deserved better. Her Facebook group quickly became a place of support, practical advice and referrals and now only one year later, has over 1,370 members.

Rabbi Laura Geller, Emerita Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills and Rabbi Zoë Klein Miles of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles worked together to create the first Jewish “village” in the United States, “Chai VillageLA.” It’s a virtual community led by older adults who share their optimism, skills, support and expertise with each other to navigate the challenges and opportunities of aging. As their website describes it, one key component of the Village is helping each other with getting to doctor appointments, bringing a meal to a stick village member and making check-in phone calls to housebound Village members.

In my role as Founding Executive Director of the Jewish Los Angeles Special Needs pooled Trust, I meet with many older parents, mostly mothers in their 70s and 80s, who are still taking care of their middle-aged adult children with a range of serious disabilities, from autism, traumatic brain injury to bi-polar mental illness.

The stigma of having an adult child with a mental or intellectual/developmental disability marginalized these families decades ago, and as a result, these mothers have been on their own, often isolated from the Jewish community. They are scared of a future when they will no longer be there to provide money and day-to-day assistance in a myriad of ways, from filling prescriptions to paying the gas bill. We are working hard to fill this void.

May we find the collective will in 2019 to work together to provide more help for the family caregivers, who are giving their body and soul for their loved ones.

Michelle K. Wolf  is Founding Executive Director of the Jewish Los Angeles Special Needs pooled Trust.