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Elderly Jews cope after Wilma
JTA / December 19, 2005

By Larry Luxner

BOCA RATON, Fla. Compared to the horrors Hanna Platt lived through during the Holocaust six decades ago she lost a lung following a particularly severe beating at Auschwitz Hurricane Wilma and its aftermath should have been a breeze.

Even so, she said, things were pretty bad at Century Village, the sprawling Boca Raton retirement community where she's lived since 1983.

"We were without electricity for eight days," recalled Platt, a slight woman of 78. "Ham I don't eat, since I keep kosher. So for the first couple of days, I couldn't eat anything. Finally, when the kosher food came, I was already too weak to go and pick it up. So the girls delivered me chicken."

The "girls" Platt affectionately refers to are volunteers with Ruth Rales Jewish Family Service, a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County. The agency moved into high gear in the days after Oct. 24, when Wilma raked the area with 100-mph winds and severe flooding, leaving millions of South Florida residents without running water, electricity or telephone service for days.

Some of the worst damage was seen in the heavily Jewish city of Boca Raton, which suffered its first direct hit from a hurricane in 55 years. At both Century Village and Kings Point a large retirement community in Delray Beach roofs were blown off buildings and rains poured in, soaking carpets, furniture, walls and personal possessions.

Chabad of West Boca was among the many Jewish organizations providing relief once the storm had passed, said the congregation's rebbetzin, Chani Bukiet.

"We were able to get ready-to-eat meals from Chabad headquarters in New York," said Bukiet. "The Chabad rebbetzin in Coconut Creek got together with all the various Chabads around we took the food to various communities in the area."

Yet nine weeks after the storm, several hundred elderly Jews in southern Palm Beach County area still living in temporary housing or with friends, said JFS's executive director, Dr. Jaclynn Faffer.

"We were the first agency to hit the ground running the day after Wilma," she told JTA. "The Area Agency on Aging sort of asked us to be the coordinating agency. we formed a partnership between them, the Palm Beach Sheriff's Department and our elected officials. We literally went door to door, delivering food and ice, making sure people had their medical needs attended to."

Added Ann Chernon, the agency's director of community relations and government affairs: "The reality is that in the aftermath of Wilma, many apartments were damaged and had to be condemned. But FEMA and the insurance companies have created such a bureaucracy, basically bullying the seniors and taking advantage of them."

She said JFS still has caseworkers going door-to-door at Century Village and Kings Point, helping people fill out applications for assistance.

"The problem is that much of what's done today is done online, but only 10% of seniors are computer-literature," said Chernon. "It's one thing to have a computer and check your e-mail, it's a whole other thing to fill out forms online. They've put up a number of roadblocks for seniors."

Chernon said JFS will head a task force meeting in early January that will address many of these issues and develop a plan for future disasters.

"We know that in all likelihood, there will be more hurricanes, and our goal is to be better-prepared and have a better, more coordinated approach," she said.

The agency is also trying to publicize its 10-year-old CareLink program for Jewish residents aged 75 or older like Platt, whose two daughters live in New York and California. After Wilma, JFS expects demand for the program to pick up significantly.

"CareLink allows adult children up North to contact us, and we can work with them to check up on their parents. So we become the surrogate children. We accompany them to doctors' appointments and do formal monthly reports. There's constant e-mail contact between us and the adult children," she said. "We're trying to publicize this program up North so that people know about us before an emergency occurs."

JFS charges its clients $350 for an initial evaluation, then a $100 hourly rate for services rendered. This includes sending someone to visit twice a week to make sure elderly parents are eating properly.

"We can hook them up with a home health-care agency that gives them a preferred rate," she said. "They sign a contract, which says we'll keep an eye out on the parents, get them involved in any one of our many programs, most of which are free, so at least they have some social support.

"A lot of private companies do this for a lot more money. We don't even break even on the program," said Faffer, adding that "as the Jewish population gets older and older, "there's going to be more and more of a need for this."

In fact, a soon-to-be-released demographic study shows that while the median age of Jews in southern Palm Beach County is 71, only 9% of them have adult chidlren also living in the county, while another 12% have an adult child living elsewhere in South Florida.

"After the hurricane, we had one woman drive up to our agency with her 90-year-old mother in the back seat, saying she needed a place to put her. The daughter lived in Boca Raton and still had electricity and plenty of room, but didn't want to take her mother in," said Faffer.

"It's not unusual for us to get a call from an adult child who's just moved his mom or dad, or both, into an apartment at Kings Point. Then they call us as they're about to fly back North and say, 'take care of them.' They just dump their parents here. It's not the majority, but it happens more than you can imagine."

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