In the early 1970’s, hundredth birthdays made national news and senior-specific programs were rare. It took the vision and determination of Julius Sankin, then President of the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA), and a small cadre of his friends to dramatically change the landscape of local senior services. “The Sankin Squad,” as one admirer called them, started with three simple but powerful ideas:
- Older adults should be able to live in the homes of their choice as independently as possible for as long as possible.
- The Greater D.C. area should model for Federal lawmakers and the nation the very best in senior programs.
- The Jewish community has the smarts and resources to get the job done. We also have the best possible motivator – a Biblical commandment to honor mother and father.
At Julie’s urging, JSSA, the Hebrew Home, the Jewish Community Center, and the United Jewish Appeal (not then a Federation) created a multi-agency committee and conducted a massive community study of senior needs. Eighty-some volunteers interviewed 500 older adults in their own homes, and generated thousands of pages of findings. What they found was sad and compelling.
Many families were scrambling to find social outlets, benefits programs and affordable rides for moms and dads. And many vulnerable elders, some of whom were once leaders of our community, were living solitary lives. They were isolated, lonely and all but forgotten, especially if they had outlived their friends or if loved ones lived far away
UJA took action. In a 1973 message to the Washington Jewish community, UJA said, “Two years of study and planning by the UJA Committee on Aging…have culminated in the birth of a new entity, the Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington.”
With a start-up grant of $67,000 from UJA, JCA was born on July 24, 1973. The timing was perfect!
That year, the Federal government realized the Older Americans Act by establishing a network of senior-specific agencies called “Area Agencies on Aging” throughout the U.S., authorizing the creation of multi-purpose senior centers, and initiating many other programs, too, including the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) for unemployed, low-income adults age 55 and older who were determined to get off welfare and into the workforce. The very next year, the fledgling JCA landed a grant to run SCSEP in Montgomery County, Maryland — a program that the organization continues to run today.
What a world it was into which JCA was born! Richard M. Nixon was President. The median family income was $12,050, and the average home cost $35,500. The Oakland A’s beat the New York Mets 4 games to 3. The Supreme Court made its landmark Roe v. Wade decision, and G. Gordon Liddy and James W. McCord, Jr. were convicted of plotting to spy on the Democrats in the Watergate break-in. As Tony Orlando was singing about yellow ribbons and old oak trees, the first planeload of POWs returned home from the Vietnam War, and Arab nations placed an embargo on oil shipments to the U.S. in retaliation for American support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War.
Today, more than four decades later, much has changed. Much also has remained the same. Certainly, there are still tensions in the Middle East and political scandals at home and abroad. And certainly, too, older adults and family caregivers continue to need a trustworthy advocate and guide. JCA was and is a trusted partner on issues of housing, transportation, employment and other top concerns that have remained senior priorities for decades.
The JCA Senior HelpLine, however, has been transformed. Forty years ago, it was a call-in center. Now, the HelpLine works by phone, web, email, social media, specialized publications and a speakers bureau to connect older adults (or their daughters, sons or professional service providers) to the resources they need.
Today’s clients are of a different ilk, as well, asking far more complicated questions than clients of yesteryear. Many are overwhelmed by too much information rather than too little. Many, too, are dealing with multiple issues of aging. A 70-year-old could be trying to adjust to her retirement, control her chronic and acute health conditions, and make ends meet while helping her 90-year-old parents and 50-year-old son. JCA serves them all, sometimes with programs of its own, and often by making community connections.
Over the years, JCA has created a legacy of caring that would make Julie Sankin, long of blessed memory, proud to see.