By BERNIE BELLAN
With the Corona virus enveloping the entire world, and with seniors being among the most vulnerable members of our community, the agency whose mandate it is to provide social services to seniors in our community has been thrust into the role as the primary source of contact for many seniors - and others who rely upon social support.
Rather than being able to provide in person counseling and other services to its clientele, however, the Jewish Child and Family Service is front and centre among Jewish organizations in this city that have had to improvise how it provides its normal services.
According to Al Benarroch, Executive Director of JCFS, various staff members of JCFS have been working strenuously to try and assist in “reducing the social isolation of seniors” and other clients of JCFS who are finding themselves not only psychologically and physically isolated from the community, but often desperately in need of such things as groceries and prescription drugs.
“We’re checking in by phone for sure,” Benarroch said, “and where possible – electronically”, i.e., by computer.
“All of our staff are set up with Zoom, so they’re able to set up virtual appointments that way…With seniors we want to make sure that we’re reducing their sense of isolation. We want to make sure that they have essential services provided to them – particularly food and medications.”
In terms of how many clients JCFS is actually serving at this excruciatingly difficult time, Benarroch explained: “We’re prioritizing those that are at the highest risk for isolation. That would be our elderly. We deal with about 425-450 households in that category alone. We’re talking about 600-800 people. In that group we include our Holocaust survivors, our newcomer seniors; we have many seniors that are living with mental health issues.”
Benarroch added that “We have a lot of mental health clients who live in isolation; many of them are younger and can get out. However, this whole pandemic is going to impact them emotionally – with their anxiety. We’re checking in on them regularly – with those electronic meetings.”
Asked what JCFS is able to do in particular with respect to providing food for shut-ins, Benarroch elaborated, saying that “What we are able to do is help coordinate, make sure that we have food delivered to them. As an example, we had a client this morning who said: ‘I’m more than capable of getting out. I have some mobility issues. I can get to the grocery store through handi-transit, but I need to get home – and they won’t wait.’
“So we were able to coordinate a taxi for them to get back home. We can do this on a case by case basis. In most cases we want to follow all of the protocols in insuring that people stay socially distant, where possible stay at home.
“We have a driver right now who’s taking orders from clients for groceries. We’re placing them on line. We’re arranging pick-up and we’re dropping them off in a no-contact drop off for them, and we’re working out an invoicing system where clients will be invoiced by the agency for reimbursement.
“Certain pharmacies are still delivering, certain grocery stores have actually added delivery as an option. We’re trying to take every precaution to make sure that everyone stays safe, but everyone has what they need.”
Benarroch also cited the JCFS’s child welfare program as another facet of the agency’s mandate to provide specific services that is receiving priority attention: “It’s interesting because it’s a legally mandated service to make sure children are safe in their homes or where they’re living – that is the one program that often requires direct contact. Again though, there are government protocols how you deal with that.”
I asked Benarroch whether “you’re fielding an increase in requests for help from people who ordinarily wouldn’t be contacting you?”
He replied: “It’s too early right now to tell. We’re preparing for it in terms of whether there are more financial needs for people, whether there are more requests for accessing – for getting vital services to them. That’s why we’re one agency that has not laid people off. It’s actually very interesting to see how much we’re able to do remotely. It’s quite amazing.”
Looking ahead, Benarroch predicted that “the clients who are on our caseload are going to be receiving more check-ins than when we did face to face.
“Once we get our Passover hampers out – which is happening over the next two weeks, we’re also planning to have our volunteer coordinators do more. We’re planning on doing more of a community response to isolated seniors so that (while now) they may get one or two calls a week – “at minimum,” he explained, “one call a week from their social worker – we’re hoping that they may get one or more calls a week from the same volunteer. That will be more of a social call: ‘Hi, how are you? Would you like to have a conversation about something in the newspaper? Tell me about when you were younger…’ - things that will keep people engaged.”
Asked whether JCFS has sufficient volunteers at the present time, Benarroch stated that “We’re fielding lots of requests. We have our core volunteers, but I think we’re a very giving community. I’ve been getting lots of requests: ‘What can I give? What can I do? Is there a way I can help?’
“You know, I’ve been fielding four or five emails a day – that’s just me, from individuals saying: ‘Al, is there anything we can do?’ I just got an email from Temple Shalom saying ‘Our congregation wants to do something. What can we do?’”
“The safest thing we can do is have people make phone calls, so we’re starting to coordinate those efforts.”
(Ed. note: A day after I conducted the interview with Al Bennaroch I was contacted by a representative of the Jewish Federation who informed me that the Federation is also now in the process of organizing volunteers who can call isolated members of the community. visit the Federation website.)
At that point in our conversation I digressed into something a little more esoteric, but given Al Benarroch’s own background as an observant Jew, I thought it would be somewhat interesting for him, which was to discuss how you could say kaddish if you aren’t part of a minyan. (For more on this turn to an article on page 20 .)
Benarroch noted that a recent rabbinical ordination came out from some of “the muckety muck Sephardic rabbis in Jerusalem that said for the purposes of the seder you can bring on your elderly loved one remotely – and use the computer – under certain circumstances, so you can Zoom them into a meeting – or use something like Facetime.”
I also noted that I had been emailing with Becky Chisick (executive director of the Gwen Secter Centre) about Meals on Wheels – but that I had discovered it’s quite a bit of a rigmarole to start getting them (at least a two week wait time).
Benarroch responded that “it’s not our program, but I commend Becky for stepping up some of those opportunities to do that,” adding that “Schmoozers is still providing meals. I have seen some people come in to the building and take out.”