A conversation with…Elaine Adler

A conversation with…Elaine Adler

This is part of an occasional series that takes a look at how people live. The Jewish Standard spoke with Elaine Adler of Franklin Lakes about a life-changing event that led to a new philanthropic path.

Q. You had a full life as a philanthropist, supporter of Jewish causes, businesswoman, wife, and mother. Then your husband, Mike, had a stroke and developed problems speaking and communicating. How did this change your life?

A. Mike had a bypass operation and five days later he had a blood clot in his brain that caused a stroke. The left side of his brain, which controls language and speech, was affected. He had a lot of trouble communicating, which is a condition called aphasia. He was embarrassed and really stopped trying to speak. He became depressed and withdrawn.

Q. This must have been hard on you, too.

A. Well, I gave up my business — I had a catalogue business — to become a fulltime caregiver for a while. He had always been a wonderful partner; now I pretty much had to do it all. I also stopped doing the kind of hostessing I used to do. I’m not as social at home anymore.

Q. What was his prognosis?

A. We tried a number of speech therapists, but his speech didn’t improve — partly because he was depressed. He was smart enough to know he was depressed, and asked his doctor to put him on antidepressants for six months. We finally found a speech pathologist who told him he could overcome this — he just had to get out there and try. He had a sort of epiphany when this man said this. He got a new attitude and decided to work on it.

Mike started making progress and felt that he could do it, and maybe other people could, too. We thought we had something to offer. So we set off to find out what there was out there already for people with aphasia and discovered there wasn’t much. We traveled to Tucson, London, Oakland, Calif., and Toronto, to visit people who were working with patients and training others to work with them. There were individual speech therapists and then there were a few centers, but that was about it.

Q. How did the Adler Aphasia Center come into being?

A. We started the center four years ago, in a building on the property where our business is in Maywood. Mike was communicating somewhat then, but not as well as he is now. We started with four individuals with aphasia and four caregivers. Now we’re up to 80 people plus 40 to 50 caregivers, and we have room for even more. We offer support groups, workshops, computer instruction, and encouragement.

Q. How involved are you personally with the center?

A. Very involved! I still go in there at least once a day. I used to teach a class in writing, helping people who needed to relearn the actual characters. Right now I’m working hard at getting out the invitations for our second annual dinner, which will be on Sept. 19 at the Crystal Plaza in Livingston, with Angelica Berrie as the guest of honor and Marvin Hamlisch as the entertainment.

Thanks to a donation, I recently was able to renovate the kitchen at the center to be wheelchair-accessible, so we can have two cooking classes per week. You should see them cook — one of them has the bowl and the other has the flour and a third has something to level off the flour. They cooperate because they each only have the use of one arm! But they do beautifully, they get it done.

Q. What’s the best part of starting the center?

A. Oh, I just kvell when I go in there. Sometimes I think we get more out of it than the people it serves do! To see what people can accomplish is truly inspiring. There was a young woman who couldn’t speak and was crying all the time — all she wanted to do was to be able to read books to her child. And you know, she learned to do it. Another young man with aphasia was a councilman in a local town and wanted to run again and be able to make his acceptance speech. He practiced that speech every day. He won the seat and made the speech.

This has made our life so much fuller, and we’ve met wonderful people. Anyone who comes to visit here to visit will leave with a happy heart.

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