Turning 100: Los Angeles Jewish Home has ambitious growth plans

There are nearly 500 people waiting for a bed at L.A.’s largest senior living facility, the Los Angeles Jewish Home. Waiting, in many cases, for someone to die.

“It’s very depressing,” said Marlene Markheim, 80, of Encino. “We know that there’s a waiting list, and when a bed becomes available, we know what that entails. A bed becomes available when somebody else passes away.”

Markheim’s sister-in-law, Miriam, who is deaf and cannot see because of macular degeneration, has been on the waiting list since 2010. It’s not the Jewish Home that has her spirits low — quite the opposite; she’s heard great things — but rather the current state of eldercare in America.

“I rue the day when I’m going to need it,” Marlene Markheim said.

To people like her, it’s little solace that the Jewish Home — the largest single-source provider of senior care in Los Angeles — has 950 beds at two campuses in the San Fernando Valley and serves more than 2,300 people. How can that compare with the vast need faced by a city with more than 14,000 Jews over the age of 85, according to a 2008 estimate by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion sociologist Bruce Phillips?

The case of Markheim’s sister-in-law, who has bounced between a couple of private assisted-living communities in her search for better attention, is emblematic of a senior-care crisis. Americans are getting older and living longer, while lawmakers are cutting back on help for them. This year alone, Medi-Cal and Medicare funding for skilled-nursing centers is slated for double-digit percentage reductions.

A group of Jewish Home residents in 1950. Photos courtesy of Los Angeles Jewish Home

Stuck in the middle are long-term care providers like the Jewish Home.

“It’s pretty devastating,” said Joanne Handy, CEO/president of Aging Services of California, a membership organization that represents the not-for-profit senior living field.

It should be no surprise that these tough times have arrived —and that more are on the way. Nationally, there were nearly 40 million Americans at least 65 years old in 2009. By the time the final baby boomers hit retirement around 2030, that figure is expected to balloon to more than 72 million, according to an Administration on Aging report. That’s an increase of 80 percent in just over 20 years.

And while 13 percent of today’s Americans are age 65 or older, that figure was already close to 20 percent for Jews when the latest available data came out in the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey.

“We’ve all talked about how baby boomers are coming. Well, now baby boomers are here,” said Molly Forrest, CEO/president of the Jewish Home, which turns 100 in 2012 and will begin its centennial celebration this week.

In fact, this was the topic of a speech Forrest gave to the American Jewish Press Association in 1993. She still has her notes from that address, titled “Why Is Aging a Jewish Community Issue?”

“Our numbers of Jewish elderly are almost twice that of the general population,” she said then. “If America is concerned about the ‘graying of America,’ Jews are the ‘white-haired’ members of the growing elder population.”

David Feldman, 84, is one of the home’s hoary-haired elders, figuratively at least. He has been at the Jewish Home for eight years, ever since his late wife overheard their kids talking about the future of the aging couple and decided to take matters into her own hands.

To them, the Home was more than a place where they could grow old together and live comfortably as Orthodox Jews who keep kosher. They needed access to the facility’s medical care for his heart and lung problems, diabetes and other chronic diseases. There was something else that drew them to it, too: peace of mind.

“It’s a not-for-profit, and they promise not to throw you out,” Feldman said.

That, of course, takes money. Seventy-five percent of the Jewish Home’s residents receive government assistance. Any reduction in such aid represents an additional challenge to funding the Home’s services, which include independent living, assisted care, dementia care and skilled nursing.

Still, as the Jewish Home prepares to celebrate its centennial next year — kicked off at its annual Reflections gala on Sept. 18 — its leaders reassure worried residents that they will continue to stand by old promises.

“We’ve been here 100 years,” Forrest said. “We would never consider throwing them out.”

In Los Angeles, the Home has long been the face of Jewish eldercare. It was founded in Boyle Heights in 1912 as the Hebrew Sheltering Home for the Aged, with just five residents.

A celebration at the Jewish Home, 1912. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Jewish Home

Its first president was a Polish immigrant and grocery store owner named Simon Lewis, who was moved by the plight of the destitute elderly and enlisted the support of colleagues to provide shelter to the needy, according to the Jewish Home’s official history.

What started as a home for transient men blossomed over the years, protecting those who might otherwise have been deliberately taunted at the county poor house with offers of pork. By 1916, Lewis and others had raised enough money to provide a permanent home on Boyle Avenue with 16 rooms and five adjacent lots for expansion.

When the Jewish community migrated to West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, the Jewish Home traveled with it. Leaders purchased 11 acres on Victory Boulevard in Reseda in 1967 for what is now known as its Eisenberg Village. In 1979, it merged with the nearby Menorah Village on Tampa Avenue, which dated back to the 1930s, to create a second campus in the Valley.

Today, the Jewish Home’s reach extends to more than 2,300 people, through residents and community-based programs. The average age is 90, and 36 people are over 100. One-third of the residents do not have a living spouse, sibling or child.

Yet the need remains great. Of the 476 people waiting to get in, more than 30 are Holocaust survivors. (There are 57 who currently live there.) The giant gap between available rooms and applicants troubles Forrest deeply.

“That’s unconscionable,” she said. “We are the smallest Jewish home in the nation on a per capita basis. We need to build more. We need to build in a way that makes sense.”

Forrest admits that even building won’t be enough to meet immediate needs, so she’s calling for a plan that will expand services to the community as well.

Therein lies the challenge.

A resident performs the blessing for the Sabbath at the Jewish Home, 1976.

These bold words come at a time when everyone else seems to be cutting back. Earlier this year, state legislators voted to slash Medi-Cal reimbursements to nursing facilities by 10 percent. If the measure receives federal approval, it could mean a loss of up to $3.5 million in revenue at the Jewish Home, which has an $86 million budget.

“These were difficult reductions and not ones that we wanted to make,” said Tony Cava, spokesman for the California Department of Health Care Services. But, as a huge part of the General Fund, it had to be part of a solution to a massive state deficit, he said.

Just as bad, the feds plan on pulling back 11 percent of Medicare funds later this year, according to Handy of Aging Services of California. Those are painful cuts to absorb for providers that care for some of society’s most impoverished.

“We don’t have millions in the bank,” Forrest said. “You can’t go through and whack off $3.5 million in a month without us having to close a building. But part of the obligation when you’ve been here 100 years is you have to have a longer view of things.”