Trauma care

Dallas conference teaches new approach to care for Holocaust survivors, elderly trauma victims

PowerNET 2023: Mission Possible gathering represents a joint initiative by Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies, JFNA and Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains

Over 600 therapists, rabbis, volunteers, corporate representatives and government representatives from the U.S., Canada and Israel gathered in Dallas this week to learn the best ways to care for Holocaust survivors and other elderly people who have suffered trauma.

The three-day event, the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies PowerNET 2023: Mission Possible conference, wrapped up on Tuesday. The event was a partnership between the NJHSA, the Jewish Federations of North America and Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains. 

The three agencies are united towards common goals, Reuben Rotman, president and CEO of NJHSA, told eJewishPhilanthropy. “There’s a lot of overlap, and it just makes sense to be together for this convening.”

According to the Blue Card Foundation, out of the 80,000 Holocaust survivors in the United States, one-third lives in poverty. Research shows that nearly 90% of Americans report exposure to trauma over their lifetime, and about 10% of those people qualify as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual fifth edition. These are veterans and refugees, and people who have survived natural disasters, violence, accidents and illnesses.

“Trauma is very prevalent,” Shelley Rood Wernick, managing director for the JFNA’s Center on Holocaust Survivor Care and Institute on Aging and Trauma, told eJP. “And we as social service providers need to set up all programs, policies, systems, to take that into account, and ensure that the clients feel respected and empowered to make choices about their lives and to make choices about their care.”

That recognition and empowerment is called “person-centered, trauma-informed” (PCTI) care, which JFNA is the leading authority on. The conference featured over 60 sessions, with seven developed by JFNA specialists directly teaching PCTI. Presenting at the conference were 27 experts in Holocaust survivor care, including program directors, social workers and leaders from the African American and Native American community, discussing historical trauma.

The PCTI programming was part of a $2.5 million grant provided to JFNA by the Administration for Community Living, a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which was originally awarded in 2015. This year, the grant bumped up to $8.5 million. As part of the grant, JFNA trains and funds more than 80 other agencies in providing PCTI care, including the NJHSA and the Blue Card Foundation. JFNA-developed PCTI programs have benefitted over 35,000 Holocaust survivors, 16,000 professional caregivers, 6,000 family caregivers and 5,000 older adults with a history of trauma.

“There is the belief that time heals all wounds. Unfortunately, with trauma survivors in general, that is not quite true, particularly with survivors of a massive trauma,” Yael Danieli, a psychologist and the director of the Group Project for Holocaust Survivors and Their Children and founder of the International Center for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, told eJP. “You’ll find that with normal aging, most survivors will not have their work to lean on, their work comrades to be with and the structure of life that younger age provides, and they might experience a flush of memories and feel rather helpless. There is this reliving of the past that might be very painful. We must be with them to help, and an understanding of trauma must really be there.”

Many survivors came to the U.S. during the 1980s and ‘90s from the former Soviet Union and didn’t have as much time to integrate into the U.S. system. They never formed careers, don’t receive pensions and may not speak English. Most living survivors were young children during the Holocaust. To best help them, those who work with them need to be considerate, to think about what they’ve experienced and adapt to their needs, Rood Wernick explained.

“If you don’t take into consideration that maybe someone has had food insecurity in the past, and you offer them a meal that is not abundant or on schedule, that could be retraumatizing,” she said. “A person-centered, trauma-informed meal program would not have a buffet line, because the person at the end of the line might be concerned that there wouldn’t be enough food by the time they get to the front. Instead, there’d be plated meals, so everyone knows their food is coming, and to-go boxes already on the table, so people will expect there’ll be an abundance of food and you’re welcome to take it home, you don’t even have to ask. That helps a person feel safe.”

Agencies who are not in tune with how trauma can affect a survivor’s life often ignore their needs, which can lead them to being misdiagnosed for mental illnesses and given improper medication. It’s “not proper care for someone that deserves better,” Rood Wernick said.

At the conference, there was even a dentist presenting on his experience working with trauma survivors. “Going to a dentist can be retraumatizing for Holocaust survivors,” Rood Wernick said, “especially for the survivors who are aware of teeth being pulled during the Holocaust as a way of dehumanizing.”

Another focus of the conference was on self-care, which is vital when working with trauma survivors, Rotman said, “just like when you’re on an airplane, and they say, ‘if you’re sitting next to a child, you have to take care of yourself [first before] taking care of the others.’”

Many Holocaust survivors are the best people to model how to overcome struggles, Rood Wernick said. “Holocaust survivors are our teachers and our heroes, and we continue to learn from them, together with them. And it’s beautiful, and we are grateful that they’re continuing to teach us how to help them and how to help other older adults with a history of trauma. Let’s celebrate them. I just can’t thank them enough.”