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Thanks for Those Small Favors

November 24, 2010 By:
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During a very difficult year, Marilyn Kaplan had people to lean on for support, including her bridegroom Morris. Photo by Greg Bezanis
Marilyn Kaplan had shed weight precipitously in the months following her cancer diagnosis and needed to take in more calories in order to have the strength to withstand months of chemotherapy. The problem: Pricey nutritional supplements that help with weight gain typically aren't covered by insurance.

"They're very expensive, and I couldn't afford it," said the 76-year-old resident of Northeast Philadelphia.

For help, she turned to the Klein JCC, which, among other things, is the largest senior center in Philadelphia, and a place she knows well.

Social workers connected with Klein's In Home program, which assists homebound seniors regardless of their ethnic or religious background, stepped in to help. The program -- funded by the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia -- arranged for kosher, home-delivered meals and funding for the supplements.

But Klein's In Home initiative can provide money only up to six months, and it's capped at $1,200. When that time ran out, staff at the Klein sought assistance for Kaplan from PCA, a nonprofit organization with a staff of 600. That agency's Emergency Fund can offer about $100 annually in relief to city residents over 60. Recipients must be referred by a social worker and meet income requirements.

That sum is hardly enough to plug the dam in a major crisis like repairing a heating system, restoring service that's been shut off, or coping with the financial costs and logistical challenges of an unexpected illness. But social workers at various agencies have looked to the PCA money pool as one in a series of tools to help elderly clients make it through rough times.

But now the fund is in danger of shutting down. Last year, as the cold months got under way, the fund had $126,000 at its disposal; at present, it has about $10,000.

Created in 1989, the fund -- which is made up strictly from private donations -- is administered by PCA, but supported by 22 social-service agencies, including the Klein and Stiffel JCCs, and the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia. (Klein and Stiffel are considered one entity, even though the former is in Northeast Philadelphia and the latter is in South Philadelphia.)

Heat vs. Medication

The groups commit to giving at least $1,000 a year to the fund. In turn, social workers at the agencies gain the right to seek benefits from the fund for their clients.

Joan Zaremba, PCA's director of marketing and corporate relations, said of the fund: "The money can make the difference between not having your heat turned off, and getting your medicine because you had money to buy food that week."

Zaremba attributed the drop to three factors: the decline of donations from corporations and nonprofit foundations; the fact that many of the groups connected to the fund have struggled and been unable to contribute; and, perhaps most of all, the increased costs of home heating oil. Restoring heat is one of the fund's most common uses, and PCA is required to purchase at least 100 gallons of oil at once.

The fund's troubles appear to be another sign of how the economic downturn has made life more precarious for seniors living on fixed incomes. Ongoing economic difficulties continue to hit seniors particularly hard, with requests for assistance continuing to rise, according to Allen Glicksman, director of research and evaluation at PCA.

This is the second straight year that federal Social Security benefits have gone without a cost-of-living increase.

And, Glicksman noted, as adult children may be out of work or struggling to pay bills themselves, they are less likely to be able to help their elderly parents.

He added that a recent survey showed that 10 percent of older Philadelphians reported skipping a meal in the past year to save money.

Those factors have translated to a rise in the numbers of seniors seeking help from the Emergency Fund and other sources. Over the past fiscal year, the PCA Emergency Fund had a 16 percent increase in the number of elderly Philadelphians seeking help, according to officials there. It awarded a total of $281,866 to 1,975 people.

Philadelphia has a disproportionately high number of seniors, a trend that extends to the Jewish community as well. According to the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia," 19 percent of Jews in the region are over the age 65; that climbs to 45 percent when counting all Jews over 50. As a result, meeting the basic needs of seniors is not just a short-term problem, but a long-term challenge for the Jewish community.

Despite the difficulties associated with raising charitable dollars during tough economic times, members of the Jewish community still have more avenues to turn to for help than the public at large, according to Brian Gralnick, director of Federation's Center for Social Responsibility.

"The Jewish community is very well-equipped to handle an emergency," he said.

For example, as part of their vast array of senior services, the two agencies that are part of the PCA consortium -- JFCS, and the Klein and Stiffel JCCs -- also have their own discretionary funds.

Of the $499,000 JFCS handed out over the fiscal year that ended last month in direct, emergency assistance to individuals and families in need, more than 20 percent went to seniors, said Joanne Lippert, assistant director of adult and family services.

The agency can distribute up to $1,500 a year per family in a crisis situation. In addition, it can dispense $100 a month in food vouchers to an individual or a family.

Between November 2009 and October 2010, $120,000 of the nearly $500,000 went to 245 seniors. That was an increase from the preceding year, when 162 seniors received a total of $117,000 out of $473,000 in total money allocated.

Klein and Stiffel also have several programs geared to helping seniors in difficult situations, including the In Home program for temporarily home-bound seniors, which has a budget of approximately $435,000, with $342,000 coming from PCA (not its emergency fund), and the rest coming from Federation and other sources, according to Raechel Hammer, Klein's chief operating officer. There's also the Gateways to Aging Well program, which offers an array of support services for seniors who are not homebound, and which received $990,000 from Federation in its last funding cycle.

"The agency provides a variety of safety net programs that help the elderly age in place from the time that they are active and able to the time that they are homebound and or frail. And the PCA Emergency Fund is a vital part of that safety net service," said Hammer.

But even with these resources, officials at Federation and other agencies are urging Jews not to forget about other types of public benefits, such as food stamps, said Gralnick.

Meanwhile, staff at the Klein and JFCS noted that the PCA funds are critically important.

Zaremba, of PCA, said the nonprofit group is stepping up its efforts to raise more money: "A little bit can really make a difference. Some of these situations are life and death."

Kaplan, the Northeast resident who was a recipient of the PCA funding, knows better than most never to count something -- or someone -- out.

Her pancreatic cancer diagnosis came just a few months after she and Morris Kaplan were married in a ceremony at the Klein branch. The widow and widower had met one day on an elevator at the facility.

In October, the couple celebrated their first anniversary at -- where else? -- the Klein, where she can be found on most days.

Grateful for the help she got in her time of need, Kaplan said she wanted to give back. First, she started volunteering with -- and now, she's working for -- Klein's In Home program. She answers the phone and does clerical work five hours a day, four days a week.

"I've always been active," said Kaplan, who raised three grandchildren after the death of an adult daughter. "Sometimes, I wasn't feeling good, but working helped me. If you don't get up and do things, you're stagnating -- and I can't be like that."

Where Seniors Turn for Help

The following is a partial list of area agencies that respond to emergency needs for seniors. The following is a partial list of area agencies that respond to emergency needs for seniors.

  • Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, provides assistance via their help line at 215-765-9040 or see: www.pcacares.org.
  • The Klein and Stiffel JCCs have social workers on staff to assist both temporarily homebound seniors and elderly who may be more mobile, but are also in need of help. Call 215-698-7300, Ext. 147. For more information, see: www.kleincenters.org.
  • Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia offers a range of services for low-income seniors. Call 1-866-JFCS-NOW (1-866-532-7669) or online at: www.jfcsphilly.org.
  • The Golden Slipper Club and Charities HUNIS (Human Needs and Services) Committee distributes emergency dollars with a referral from a social worker. Call 610-660-0520, Ext. 101.
  • Jewish Information and Referral Service provides assistance on where to turn for which needs. Call 215-832-0821.
  • Benefits Data Trust provides advice on benefits for Philadelphians over 60 and earning less than $40,000. Call 1-800-236-2194.
  • Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare provides a hotline for information on a range of government benefits, from Food Stamps to the Federal Low-Income Home-Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).Call 800-692-7462 or visit: www.dpw.state.pa.us.
  • To receive monthly food packages or for help in an emergency food situation, call the Jewish Relief Agency at 610-660-0190. For information on Mitzvah Food Project pick-up locations, call 215-832-0509 or go to: www.jewishphilly.org.

 

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