Helping seniors thrive through the power of connection

Growing up within a small Holocaust Survivor’s community, I learned a lot about the importance of community, belonging and acceptance. My elders understood the importance of being connected to each other and the basic need to not only feel connected, but also accepted by those around you. Feeling socially connected is as essential to our positive mental health as food and water is to our physical health.

In 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory declared that loneliness and isolation is an epidemic facing many of our community members. While many may think that there is a distinction between mental and physical health, the Surgeon General drew a direct line, noting that those who are socially isolated are 29% more likely to suffer premature death. Moreover, they are at higher risk of heart disease (29%) or stroke (32%). They even equated its impact to someone smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

While many of us have been increasingly isolated over the past few years, especially during the height of COVID, our older adults are especially at risk. As seniors age, they often struggle with disabilities and/or illness that hinder their ability to drive independently; they leave the workforce, and some struggle with the loss of family, friends, and even their spouse. No matter the cause, it is all too easy for seniors to be left feeling alone and vulnerable, which can lead to a serious decline in their physical health and emotional well-being.

As a member of the “sandwich generation,” simultaneously caring for my adolescent children and my aging parents, this issue is particularly resonant for me. I see the importance of social connection both for my aging parents as well as teenage children. On a professional level, as a social worker, I am so proud of JFCS’s longstanding commitment to foster social connection across the generations and especially for our eldest community members.

Our clinicians and case managers know that as people age, they often need a continuum of care that is complicated and difficult to access. The primary goal of our Senior Services department is to coordinate this care and enable senior clients to age with dignity and respect. Seniors meet one-on-one with caring and dedicated social workers who will help them identify and connect to the services that they need to age well. We strive to serve the “whole person” through a range of holistic support that promotes healthy eating, a clean home environment, continuity of medical care, assistance with personal needs, and–perhaps most importantly–the companionship of others. Through our volunteer program, seniors can receive a friendly visitor, a personal shopper, or someone to help them complete minor home repairs. As an agency, we strongly believe in collaborating with our partner agencies. Whether it be the JCC Congregate Meal Program, Aleph Home Care, Lions Gate Rehab, or so much more, seniors can access a continuum of services to support their physical and emotional needs. Through this holistic and collaborative approach, we give seniors (and their families) peace of mind while they live life to the fullest.

These are just a few of the things JFCS offers to South Jersey’s older adults:

Patient Partners pairs trained volunteer medical advocates with local seniors. Our volunteers accompany clients to their doctors’ appointments, where they provide support, ask questions, take notes, and share important follow-up information with the patient (and their family, if needed).

Local Holocaust Survivors enjoy regular opportunities to socialize with each other and participate in compassionate, trauma informed activities through our monthly Love Café Europa and Hope & Healing programs. The Survivors are some of our community’s most frail and most vulnerable members, and our incredible JFCS social workers, staff, and volunteers do all they can to help these clients live with fulfillment, dignity, and meaning.

Friendly Visitor volunteers check in on clients, either in person or over the phone, to offer companionship to clients and bring peace of mind to their family members. Volunteers may visit clients in their homes or accompany them on community outings. Many of our volunteers and clients have developed close, long-term friendships through this unique local program.

Take the Wheel is a lifeline for local veterans, who receive free transportation to and from their medical appointments from volunteer drivers–many of whom are veterans themselves. Many older veterans have difficulty arranging their appointments, getting transportation to treatments, and identifying the benefits to which they are entitled. Take the Wheel enables these clients to receive the care, companionship, and consideration they deserve.

But JFCS does so much more to help South Jersey’s seniors thrive! To learn about all of the programs and services for older adults, please visit jfcssnj.org/60plusservices/ or call our offices at (856) 424-1333.

We each have a role to play in combatting loneliness and nurturing a connected community. As individuals, we can invite more connection into our lives by finding a new passion, joining a book club, taking a class, or trying new activities in the community. We can stay engaged by becoming volunteers or mentors. We can develop new friendships or build deeper connections with our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. Taking stock of your social connections is an important part of self-care, similar to eating well and exercising; but it is also an important part of taking care of others.

By sharing our time and our experience with others, we will build a stronger, healthier, and more resilient community. What we do today will make a big difference tomorrow.