Taking care of the young at heart is a communal effort

It is my pride and privilege to serve as the Jewish Council for the Aging’s CEO.

At our annual Productive Aging Award Dinner, Herb Mintz, who with his wife, Bobbe, co-chairs the event, told us how “Rebbe” Frank Sinatra inspires him because Sinatra advises us to be young at heart. The participants in JCA programs — our clients and our friends — do help me feel young. My 12-year-old grandson, on the other hand, can make me feel old, old, old.

The other day, grandson Davin sent me a text message that read: “Wow! You would be even older on Mercury because they have short days there. You better stay on earth.”

Because Davin’s PopPop is a gerontologist who works at the Jewish Council for the Aging, Davin has grown up aware as few children are of the challenges of growing up and growing old. But nothing has shaped his views about aging more dramatically and more positively than the JCA Seniors Prom, which JCA has run for five consecutive years in collaboration with BBYO and the apartment buildings of Charles E. Smith Life Communities.

At the prom, grown-ups in their 80’s, 90’s and even older dance with teens and pre-teens, and everyone discovers there that one’s age is a lot less important than one’s smile and attitude. The prom is a microcosm of what we do best. We operate it on a shoestring budget, which we are able to do because a small army of volunteers handles the publicity, buys the food and drink we serve there, sets up the room, takes pictures and more. Even the DJ is a volunteer!

The event is intergenerational from top to bottom. It breaks down age-related stereotypes and fosters friendships across the years. It is a multi-agency program that involves not only BBYO and Charles E. Smith Life Communities, but also the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Our Seniors Prom is a part of the Sara & Samuel J. Lessans Good Deeds Day, which itself is part of an international day of community service.

It shows how amazing are the JCA staff — skilled, compassionate and often invisible heroes that do what it takes to ensure that our programs are second to none. We run transportation programs that bring otherwise homebound elders into the community they love. We operate award-winning information and referral programs that connect older adults and family caregivers to the resources they seek. We provide a diverse array of senior employment services that enable older job seekers to land the jobs they need, want and deserve.

Two of our programs are celebrating special anniversaries. The Heyman Interages Center is celebrating its 30th anniversary of community service, and for all of those 30 years it has enabled local schoolchildren to succeed in school and life. Interages began as a separate organization, but we are delighted that five years ago it merged into JCA.

Last year alone, 353 Interages volunteers ages 50 and up donated 6,778 hours of skilled volunteer service. More than 900 at-risk youth received mentoring and tutoring through programs we operated at 83 locations in Montgomery County. And 471 youth participants interacted with 453 vulnerable seniors living in senior facilities or attend adult day centers. And Interages’ newest program enabled seniors to read to 219 children and talk with them about healthy lifestyles as they waited in the Montgomery County offices while mom and dad (or grandma and grandpa) were applying for the public benefits they need.

Program metrics show how very much we help children become good at math and good at reading. They show how very much the volunteers and the children and teachers and public school leaders love what we do.

Our Misler Adult Day Center is celebrating 40 years of service. Last year, that Misler Center provided 9,058 days of care to 93 vulnerable older adults. Most suffer some form of cognitive impairment. Many are sick, frail or afraid, but when you see them smile and hear them laugh, when they forge new friendships and hug our staff, when they say that “life is good because the Misler Center is good,” then we know that we have done a good and right thing for the world.

A JCA bus driver who was working three jobs to make ends meet wanted to give up his small JCA pension because some of the Misler participants needed that money so much more than he did. (No, we didn’t let him do that.)

And years ago when Larry Levin ended his term as JCA’s president, he proudly returned to the JCA volunteer job that had brought him to the Jewish Council for the Aging so many years before; he once again served meals to the Misler participants and he helped them get to and from the bathroom. “Volunteering at Misler,” he told me, “is my payback for dealing with all those spreadsheets and Board meetings and committee meetings I endured.”

How those spreadsheets make me worry! I don’t sleep because of them. Board members — all volunteers — and staff have spent hundreds of hours developing budgets for the new fiscal year that starts on July 1. The best-case scenario for grants and gifts leaves us with a hole of $71,600 for Interages and a hole even larger than that — much larger than that — at the Misler Adult Center.

My wife and I have decided to support JCA next year with a contribution of $20,000 because we believe that this is the time to do what our hearts tell us we must. We know firsthand what wonderful work JCA does. It brings hope to vulnerable seniors and hope to children that desperately need a friend. It enables volunteers of all ages and especially older volunteers to work wonders for the community they cherish.

I encourage you to join us in giving to JCA. A gift of $4,900 would cover the cost of schoolchildren’s visit to homebound elders for a full month. A gift of $250 would buy a week’s worth of gas for a JCA ElderBus that transports vulnerable seniors to our Misler Adult Day Center and Kensington Clubs for early-stage memory loss, and $50 would buy a whole week of hot, nutritious kosher meals for a Misler participant.

If you can find it in your heart to make a wish come true. In the words of Frank Sinatra, “Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart.”

David Gamse is the CEO of the Jewish Council for the Aging. This article is adapted from his remarks at the organization’s Productive Aging Award Dinner in May.

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