Our Golden Years

You should live so long

It’s one of the first warm, sunny days of the year, and 90-year-old Rosa J. stands huddled over her cane at the deserted street corner. Her 60-year-old daughter Jane attempts to maneuver Rosa down the curb and across the street to the supermarket, but Rosa is afraid of falling. Several passers-by stare at the two women, but none stops to lend a hand.

Finally, Rosa and Jane inch their way across the street and enter the supermarket. Here they purchase most of Rosa’s food for the next two weeks, as fane can only visit her mother biweekly. Rosa’s daughter must travel almost two hours to visit her.

Rosa is one of the lucky ones. Her daughter is still alive and within driving distance of the old neighborhood. Other elderly women are not as fortunate. Many lost their families during World War II, others never had children or the children themselves aged and died, and still others have family living in distant communities. Without children to aid them financially or emotionally, they are totally isolated in a society that views youthfulness and money as its most important achievements.

Rosa, unable to walk alone, rarely ventures out of the house except to lean up against the brick facade of her 1920s tenement apartment house.

But even if she were still physically able, Rosa J. has nowhere to go and nothing to do. She belongs to the growing number of “old, old” Jewish women—over 85 years old—who are a relatively new and growing constituency in the community.

Close to a quarter of a million Jews over the age of 65 live within the five boroughs of New York City, according to the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged (JASA). This number represents 20 per cent of the Jewish population. The majority are probably women.

New York City is not alone in its aging Jewish population. Officials in the Federation of Jewish Agencies in Philadelphia estimate conservatively that 11 to 14 percent of the 350,000 Jews there are over 65; 33 percent of the 225,000-member Greater Miami Jewish community are reported to be senior citizens. There are similar estimates from other large Jewish urban centers.

There are, however, no figures on how many of these people are the truly elderly— those 85 and up—or on exactly how many are women. Moreover, all these numbers are merely estimates based on census data for the general white population; no detailed survey has been completed, though several are currently underway. The Jewish spokespeople willing to venture these estimates show a fear of revealing to non-Jews the shrinking overall size and increasing percentage of the elderly in the Jewish community; they don’t want to lose political clout.

Approximately 25 percent of the Jewish elderly in New York City live at or near the poverty level, according to JASA. In Miami, that figure is closer to 40 percent, said Nathan Skolnick, director of planning and budgeting for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

Most of these elderly are women, because women tend to live longer than men.

Most of the elderly are poor because of the ravages of inflation on savings and because of the way the Social Security laws are structured.

Once a woman’s husband dies, she receives only one-half of his Social Security benefits or her own, if she has accrued any—whichever amount is greater. Her husband’s pension, if he had one, is also often reduced. The worst off is the elderly woman who never married and probably worked at a low-paying female-stereotyped job.

As the laws are currently structured, old people must “pauperize” themselves before they can qualify for many government programs and services. They must spend all the personal funds saved throughout their lifetime before they can qualify for Medicaid. The rules place a $1,500 limit for a single person and a $2,250 maximum for a couple on personal savings. (This amount is considered a burial allowance.) As a result, the elderly are reluctant to apply for these programs until they are desperately in need. In a recent interview, Loretta Schwartz-Nobel, author of Starving in the Shadow of Plenty, stated:

“One out of every three widows (in Philadelphia) is living in poverty, even with the help of Social Security and other programs. When you are poor, old, physically fragile and isolated, it is practically impossible to get by.”

Many elderly Jews live in physically aging urban surroundings such as the Lower East Side and the South and West Bronx in New York, Miami’s South Beach and Los Angeles’ Fairfax Section, despite the advancement of decay and rampant crime. Lois Lowenstein, a case supervisor for Project Ezra, a group which provides services to the elderly on the Lower East Side, claims that virtually none of the elderly is actually abandoned by their families in these old neighborhoods.

But there are good reasons why many refuse to move. Since most elderly live on fixed incomes, they are hesitant to leave their relatively cheap apartments. They also fear the toll physical change might take on them. Besides, what are the alternatives? Institutionalization and living with their children. Most elderly reject both choices.

Institutionalized people who receive government assistance only recently won the right to retain $40 a month from their Social Security checks as a personal allowance. Prior to this decision, the entire check had to be signed over to the institution in order for them to qualify for Medicaid. As Lowenstein herself admitted, the elderly are generally fiercely independent and do not want to sign over most of their Social Security checks to an institution. While the elderly can apply for Medicaid to cover the high costs— ranging up to $40,000 a year—of senior citizens’ homes, application can only be made if the elderly person has already depleted her/his savings and other resources, and not before.

The second alternative—living with one’s children—is not common among Jews. Corinne Azen Krause, in her cross-cultural study Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters found that Jewish grandmothers were much less likely to live with their children than Slavic or Italian grandmothers.

For most of the elderly, who have worked hard to achieve some independence during their lives, there is a real fear of becoming a burden in their old age. In addition, there is the clash of differing lifestyles. Totally assimilated and non-religious children are unlikely to want to live with European-born religious parents, and vice versa. Even when there is some commonality in background, economic constraints often limit the physical space that once would have been allocated to elderly parents.

Nina C, is 90 years old. Russian-born, she has lived all over Europe, and settled on New York’s Upper West Side with her husband 40 years ago. Her spacious apartment in an immaculately-kept building is sparsely decorated with old-fashioned, but good-quality furniture.

Walking toward the living room using a cane, Mrs. C. explains that one of her legs was amputated when she was 12 years old. This handicap doesn’t seem to have impaired her in her youth. She was trained as a dentist, and worked in that profession until she settled in the United States. The credentials she needed to be licensed here were too difficult to obtain.

Mrs. C. has one daughter, who lives in Queens. This daughter and her husband are retired as well, and spend part of their winters in Florida. Mrs. C. has no desire to live with her daughter. “I love my apartment, ” she states emphatically. “I can take my bath myself here. At my daughter’s, I can’t,” she explained; her bathroom arrangement allows her to reach the bathtub via the toilet seat. She also would not want to go to Florida with her daughter. “There are too many steps there.”

The Krause study found that generations of Slavic and Italian women lived in closer physical proximity than did the Jewish women. Part of the reason for this relates to the upward mobility—geographic and economic—of the younger Jewish generations, symbolized by their moving to the suburbs.

Elderly women have a hard time coping under such circumstances. The isolation they suffer leads to severe loneliness and a feeling of uselessness. Over and over again, elderly women interviewed for this article spoke of their wish for personal contact.

Senior citizen centers and women’s organizations do offer some opportunity for elderly women to establish relationships, but not all are interested in such activities. In addition, once a woman reaches her 80’s, even if she is relatively well, she, is generally physically unable to make the effort required to attend organized functions. Safety and transportation are also factors limiting participation.

Sandra Divack, Director of Project Dorot, a volunteer group in New York which visits and aids elderly and home-bound Jews, points out that men have a ready-made community in religious society: the daily minyan (quorum of synagogue worshippers). Women have traditionally been more family-oriented, with little time for outside relationships. It’s hard for them in their old age to establish a new network of friends to replace the family.

Low female self-esteem can also inhibit sociability. Elderly women were often raised in homes where men were honored over women, a notion that has carried over into old age.

Seventy-two-year old Sarah V. has no children and no relatives on the East Coast. She lives completely alone in a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

The last two years have been especially hard. Her husband died of cancer about 20 months ago, and Mrs. V. was unable to cope with this loss. She and her husband were very close—”almost like young lovers”—and they had no friends other than each other. On two occasions, Mrs. V. has had to be hospitalized because of her lack of attention to food or her confusion over drugs and their administration.

She now is able to function on her own. But she has no interest in social contacts. Several neighbors have invited her for meals, but she prefers to be alone in her somewhat run-down apartment. “I’m not in the mood,” she says. Mrs. V. also refuses to attend the senior citizens centers.

Most of Mrs. V. ‘s day is spent watching television and reading the Yiddish newspaper. While she does not express her loneliness in words, she is eager for attention, but self-denigrating at the same time. She says about herself, “I don’t like myself, why should anyone else?”

Project Dorot has tried to integrate the young and the old in an effort to show that the elderly do have something to offer society. In certain instances, they have matched up elderly women with young children to provide a foster grandparent experience. “We try to stress that I need your (the older person’s) help,” Sandy Di-vack explains. Project Ezra utilizes high school and college-age volunteers to help the elderly on the Lower East Side. One of its volunteers speaks of her experience: “My relationship with Bessie exposed me to a different perspective on life—what an old person looking back now sees as what really mattered.”

The primary provider of care to the elderly is the daughter or daughter-in-law. This holds true whether or not the daughter is working, according to Natalie Gordon, chief of social services at the Jewish Home and Hospital for Aged in Manhattan.

The daughter is often caught in the “middle generation,” the group that is called upon to provide care and nurturance to both the generation immediately older and immediately younger than it. This seriously strains the resources of the daughter, who is frequently approaching the age of 65 herself. A middle-aged Boston woman recently reported: “I have not been to any social gathering in the past year or so where the dominant subject for discussion among my contemporaries has not been ‘what to do about our parents.'”

Krause points out that Italian and Slavic daughters and granddaughters were more likely to make daily visits to the grandmothers. Among the Jewish women, weekly visits were the norm. As more women enter the work force, there is simply less time available for a daughter to care for her mother.

Mrs. S. has lived in Brooklyn for the past 18 years. Now 88 years old, she immigrated to the United States in 1912, supporting herself in small businesses during most of this time, as her husband died when she was in her late twenties. Once quite active, Mrs. S. can no longer walk very well. When she does, she needs a cane and someone to support her.

Mrs. S. ‘s daughter comes to visit her as often as possible, but she has her own problems and interests. Recently divorced, she runs her own business and cannot drive the 50 minutes to her mother’s at a moment’s notice.

The delegation of the burden chiefly to the daughter also creates or increases the conflicts between generations. The intense involvement caused by the older woman’s need for care tends to revive unresolved conflicts from the past—arguments between mother and daughter, sometimes dating back 40 to 50 years.

Aging deals a severe blow to the traditional role of the mother as nurturer. The elderly Jewish woman, who once ruled the roost, is now relegated to a position of powerlessness, weakness and dependency. Her daughter assumes responsibility for her care, from cooking and cleaning to dealing with the numerous bureaucracies involved with the elderly. The daughter is especially important in this role for the very elderly non-American-born mother, who often relied on her husband to deal with bureaucracies in this country.

“It’s very hard for the parents to take,” Lowenstein said. “They were once the care providers.”

The Jewish community provides some services to the elderly, although most of its programs rely on government funding that is currently being cut.

During the last 15 years, the federal government has provided funds, generally through some matching formula, to state, local and private agencies interested in administering programs for the elderly. The Jewish community has availed itself of these funds, and matched them with community-raised monies. In New York City, $6.4 million—approximately 20 percent of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies’ annual budget of $32 million—goes to programs for the elderly, according to Al Schwarz, consultant for health care and aging at the Federation. In Miami, said Nathan Skolnick, approximately $10 million in community-raised funds are spent on such programs.

In New York City, much of these funds are administered through JASA, although some of the budget does go directly to five senior citizens’ homes. JASA operates over 20 senior citizens’ centers throughout the city, several luncheon clubs and two apartment-house complexes. What is difficult to determine is how many people actually avail themselves of these facilities, and how many cannot because the facilities are over-utilized.

Ann Wolfe, a long-time Jewish community activist, claimed that many elderly Jews do not know of the Jewish resources available. The community does not have an extensive outreach program, she said. “An awful lot of elderly Jews in New York fall through the cracks.” This is especially true of Jews who have not previously associated with the Jewish community and of the foreign-born who have no one to help them.

The homes that Federation in New York supports are geared to the well elderly, the frail elderly and those in between. There are dozens of other, private and non-Federation-supported Jewish senior citizen homes located in the New York area aimed at people in these categories. These are not supervised or monitored by the Federation or any other overall Jewish communal body.

Fewer than five percent of the Jewish elderly population lives in such facilities. Schwarz claims that there currently are enough beds in Jewish senior citizens’ homes for the people who need them. The existence of long waiting lists at many of these homes and of Jewish residents desiring Jewish homes but living in non-Jewish ones seem to indicate the opposite is true.

Some of the newer types of housing situations available to the well elderly are known as enriched housing units. To qualify for these units, residents living in small efficiency apartments must be self-reliant and able to attend the one or two communal meals prepared for them daily. Federation supports two such facilities.

Meanwhile, the complexion of the elderly Jewish community is changing. Once elderly Jews were largely an immigrant population. The generation of Jews now entering its late fifties and early sixties tends to be American-born, better educated, and slightly better off financially than its predecessor. “They are not as interested in arts and crafts,” Schwarz said. Rather, they are drawn to subjects with a higher level of intellectual challenge, to classes in law, politics and history. This shift in interests is placing an added burden on the community to change its traditional programs to ones requiring a greater level of planning and staffing.

The Federation in New York is sponsoring a committee on the aging which will “identify the priorities” of the New York Jewish community in regard to the elderly over the next five years. According to Schwarz, some of the areas that need addressing are housing needs, nursing home beds, home care, leisure activities, food and transportation.

No senior citizens are included on the committee. Schwarz’s reason for this omission is that the committee is only dealing with demography and financing, not with the actual delivery of services. Nor has the Federation held a citywide open hearing for the aged to hear their needs and concerns.

Schwarz and others stressed that the Jewish community at large must begin to recognize the problems of the elderly as “legitimate fund-raising and volunteer” causes. This is especially important as the Reagan Administration seems bent on cutting funding to programs for the elderly.

Wolfe claims that the situation for elderly Jews is improving. She points to the horrors of ten years ago, when communal groups denied that problems of poverty even existed. “Some Federations have really active, concerned programs,” she said, citing Chicago as an example. But others need more “humanity,” especially in New York, where the red tape is often overwhelming, she said.

Although Wolfe sees quite a bit of progress being made in services to the elderly, she said that more pressure must be applied before the community’s priorities are straightened out.

Whether the Jewish community will deal fairly, honestly and effectively with the problem of its “graying” population may depend largely on whether this becomes a major issue for women. Women compose the majority of the elderly population and also take the prime responsibility for their elderly mothers.

Whether we recognize it or not, whether we will it or not, old age is a feminist issue.

Paula Gantz is a member of Lilith’s Advisory Committee

Resources for the Elderly


The National Council of Jewish Women has a wide variety of publications on interest to those working with the elderly—including how to get a meals-on-wheels program started and a pamphlet, Options in Living Arrangements for the Elderly. They also have published two nursing-home guides to help people select appropriate facilities. The volunteers who were trained to conduct the surveys have now become local advocates for nursing home residents to ensure that they are receiving adequate care. For further information on the aging programs at NCJW, which has made this area one of their top priorities, contact:

NCJW 15 East 26 St New York NY 10010

My People Jacob: Thy Tents Have Grown Old: A Manual for Planning Weekend Kallot (retreats) for Older Adults by Gary P. Zola and Kerry M. Olitzky (this pamphlet has a very useful bibliography on aging) and So Teach Us to Number Our Days: A Manual on Aging for Synagogue Use

Union of American Hebrew Congregations

838 Fifth Ave. New York NY 10021


Organizations which connect the Jewish elderly with younger people in their communities:

Dorot Temple Ansche Chesed

West End Ave. at 100th St. New York NY 10025

Project Ezra, 197 East Broadway New York NY 10002

The Ark, 3509 West Lawrence Ave. Chicago IL 60625


For a filmography with numerous listings relevant to the lives of older Jewish women:

“Growing Older” Medium #24

Jewish Media Service

Jewish Welfare Board

15 East 26 St. New York NY 10010