When compared to all US adults, Jewish adults are disproportionately older. A 2021 Brandeis University study reveals that while 30 percent of Jewish adults are aged 65 or older, only 22 percent of US adults are in that age range. This finding confirms a trend that has been anticipated for years; older adults are a large and growing percentage of the Jewish population—and they will likely need help as they age. Fortunately, a collaborative response known broadly as the “AgeWell model” took root 18 years ago in Pittsburgh, and its offshoots are now spreading to Jewish communities across the country.
“Knowing that this wave of older adults is coming, and being proactive about getting one’s community infrastructure in place, is only going to pay dividends for future generations,” said Stefanie Small, the Director of Counseling and Senior Services at Jewish Family and Community Services in Pittsburgh.
Small is in a position to know; in 2003, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh led a successful effort to drive collaboration between three Pittsburgh agencies: Jewish Family and Community Services, the JCC, and the Jewish Association on Aging. Small explained how improving cooperation between these organizations reduced the redundancy of services and expenditures. “Once good communication was established, it changed everything,” she said. “The clients got a lot out of it, but so did the agencies. For the first time, they were talking to each other and developing relationships.”
The Pittsburgh collaboration evolved into AgeWell Pittsburgh—a first-of-its-kind network of services that assist older adults and caregivers in maintaining a healthy, independent life. “No one wants to be the first to dive into unknown waters,” Small said, “but Pittsburgh took that plunge and was able to come out the other side and demonstrate to others: ‘Hey, look. Pittsburgh tried this, and it worked.’”
Five years later, in 2008, an early offshoot of the AgeWell model began to grow in Cincinnati when community organizations saw that older adults were consistently struggling to find the support and services they needed. After nine years of advocacy and planning, AgeWell Cincinnati successfully launched in 2017. “Pittsburgh was instrumental in showing us a vision,” said Director of AgeWell Cincinnati June Ridgway. “We learned a lot from their experiences. But we also learned that every community needs to be true to itself. We will always be grateful to Pittsburgh, but AgeWell Cincinnati is most definitely a reflection of our local community.”
AgeWell Cincinnati recently transitioned from a pilot program to an established, permanent resource for the community. Ridgway says the real-world impacts are palpable and real. “We are particularly proud of how we were able to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates among older adults in the Greater Cincinnati area. We ran an extensive, ongoing campaign to protect the health and safety of clients, their families, and staff. It’s an effort that has literally saved lives.”
“Every Jewish community across the country is unique. Some are larger, some are smaller; some are well established, some are newer and growing. But the one thing that everybody has in common is that the population is aging, and there are older adults and caregivers who need help.”
—Jennifer Curry, Manager, AgeWell Atlanta
In 2019, a third AgeWell took root in Atlanta. The new organization learned and benefited from both of the existing AgeWells, yet carved out its own identity. Manager of AgeWell Atlanta Jennifer Curry said that customization is what makes the AgeWell model so innovative. “Every Jewish community across the country is unique,” she said. “Some are larger, some are smaller; some are well-established, some are newer and growing. But the one thing that everybody has in common is that the population is aging, and there are older adults and caregivers who need help.”
AgeWell Atlanta’s newcomer perspective allowed Curry to see the value of frequent collaboration. “I thought it would be great if the representatives from the different cities could meet regularly, so I set up a Zoom meeting and we all got so much out of it, we decided to do it every two weeks. Now we’ve got this national cohort and I can’t tell you how invaluable it has been to learn from each other.” AgeWell Baltimore Senior Associate Steph Carideo shares Curry’s enthusiasm for the Zoom meetings. “It has almost been a silver lining of the pandemic that we connect on a consistent basis and are a great professional and personal support to one another,” she said.
Carideo was hired by The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore in 2019 to take AgeWell Baltimore from concept to reality. Partnering with three human service agencies: CHAI: Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc., CHANA, and Jewish Community Services, the program developed over two years. AgeWell Baltimore launched in mid-2021, and Carideo believes the guidance she received from her AgeWell peers was critical to the agency’s success. “Learning best practices from each other, but then putting those in the context of your own community, has been really helpful. In Cincinnati, it’s the one-front-door model, but in Baltimore, we’re working toward a centralized model coupled with a no wrong door agency-to-agency referral system. But ultimately, we’re all focused on older adults and their care partners.”
Another city represented on the biweekly Zoom meetings is St. Louis, where Sarah Z. Levinson manages the Naturally Occurring Retirement Community for the Jewish Federation. Levinson notes that agency differences also apply to areas of expertise. “The beauty of this partnership is that you figure out what every city excels at, how you can get the most done, meet the most needs, have the greatest impact, and support one another.”
Sometimes, this support is hidden in plain sight. Curry shared how collaboration instantly solved one of her agency’s worst headaches. “We spent a year trying to come up with a confidentiality statement—lawyers, HIPAA discussions, everything. We were just stuck. Then one of our marketing people said, ‘Hey, look at AgeWell Cincinnati’s confidentiality statement on their website. It’s really good.’ I checked it out, and it was perfect. I emailed June [Ridgway] and said, ‘Can we use this?’ June got permission, and we’ve been using it ever since.”
When Curry pauses to consider the future, she envisions a growing network of AgeWells—each as reassuringly familiar and reliable as the next. “People are so grateful for AgeWell Atlanta, because we are the connector to what they need. So, if we had something like this in every Jewish community across the country, it would be amazing.” Carideo concurs. “If more and more cities had AgeWells, just think how that would elevate how we serve older adults and their care partners,” she said. “The potential is just phenomenal.”
Ridgway, too, shares in this vision, and notes that AgeWell Cincinnati is closely mentoring Chicago with its plans to launch an AgeWell. “We recognize that supporting aging populations is both a local and national priority,” she said. “And we’re proud that our efforts to build a coalition of AgeWell partners is not just successful, but growing.”
Pittsburgh’s standing as the “old guard” of the group allows Small to offer a philosophical perspective. “When I see all these cities taking this model and making it their own, it gives me—I’m going to use the Hebrew term, chizuk, which means to strengthen—it gives me that strength to say, ‘This gives back; this continues.’ Properly understood, that’s what the AgeWell model is all about; it approaches Jewish continuity and applies it to older adults. After all, if it weren’t for those older adults, the younger generations wouldn’t exist.”