In our advocacy work for one of the largest charitable networks on the continent, The Jewish Federations of North America, we often have the privilege of learning about the many people whose lives we change and the many that still need our support.
Recently, I learned about Mrs. T, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor who lives alone in West Palm Beach. She was weak and frail at 75 pounds when she was first identified by Alpert Jewish Family and Children’s Services (AJFCS), an agency supported by the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County. She had no way of getting to the grocery store and was suffering from poor nutrition. She subsisted on the occasional bottle of milk and box of cereal donated by concerned neighbors.
Thanks to services provided or coordinated by AJFCS, Mrs. T has made a heartening turn-around. A case manager coordinated medical care, accompanied her to doctors’ appointments, arranged for an emergency alert system, helped activate a long-term care policy and referred her for home health care. Nearly a year later, Mrs. T is stronger and more independent. Once dependent on 10 hours of home care daily, she now only needs four hours of assistance each week. Even more heartening, her mood has lightened and she participates in Caf Europa, a social event for Holocaust survivors.
However, there are more Mrs. T’s who need help. Last month, members of the Senate and House of Representatives acted with conscience and introduced legislation to prioritize Holocaust survivors under the Older Americans Act, so they can more easily obtain services such as transportation and meal delivery. The bipartisan legislation is called the Responding to the Urgent needs of Survivors of the Holocaust (RUSH) Act, and its provisions were incorporated into the Older Americans Act reauthorization bill in the Senate, also introduced last month.
The Jewish community makes advocacy for Holocaust survivors a priority, and the Jewish Federations’ Washington office has worked closely with the offices of Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) to identify ways to help survivors.
Holocaust survivors deal with many of the same issues as other seniors but they also contend with a broader set of challenges. Of the approximately 120,000 Holocaust survivors living in the United States today, three-quarters are over 75 years old, and about two-thirds live alone, placing them at high risk for institutionalization. Complicating the situation, about half of the survivors who arrived in the United States after 1965 live below the poverty line.
For one thing, survivors have special sensitivities to aspects of institutionalized care. The loss of privacy and autonomy, combined with certain sights, sounds, smells or practices, such as showers or mass transit, can trigger psychological effects that flow from their war-time trauma. The RUSH Act will help survivors remain in their homes for as long as possible, with greater autonomy and dignity.
Another Jewish Family Service Agency in Florida told me that many Holocaust survivors are simply too proud of their independence to ask for help, even when they need it the most. Furthermore, the Holocaust left many survivors isolated and alone, where they are unable to count on the kinds of family support other seniors receive. The RUSH Act will boost access for the kinds of professional services relied upon by survivors.
If approved, the RUSH Act will help people like Mrs. T age in place by providing services that reflect her unique needs, and those of other survivors.
We should all rally behind the RUSH Act and let Congress know of its vital importance. Holocaust survivors endured unimaginable atrocities that affect them later in life. Their survival is a testament to human fortitude and resilience. By working to pass the RUSH Act, we will be working to help Holocaust survivors live with the decency, dignity, and respect they deserve.
William Daroff is VP for Public Policy and Director of the Washington Office at The Jewish Federations of North America.