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A necessary conversation

Legislator supports effort to help fund adult briefs

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Rabbi Meir Berger and Marlene Ceragno at the New Synagogue of Fort Lee.

Over the past year, Marlene Ceragno has been trying to start a conversation about adult absorbent products.

But unfortunately, said Ceragno, a recreational therapist at the Senior Center of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, “There’s been no movement on the stigma front. I recently spoke at a Rotary Club meeting and at first they couldn’t look me in the eye. But it’s a conversation that has to get started. We didn’t talk about dementia years ago and now we do.”

Still, progress is being made. In August, the JCC brought together legislators interested in helping seniors meet the costs of purchasing absorbent products. One of them, State Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle (District 37), has taken the idea to Trenton.

Ceragno spoke enthusiastically about Huttle’s bill, Concurrent Resolution 166, which asks Medicare to help fund adult absorbent products.

“That is my dream,” Ceragno said. “For Medicare – not just Medicaid – to help seniors who live solely off Social Security checks to help pay for these very expensive items.”

“Adult incontinence is a growing concern as our population ages,” Huttle wrote in an email to the Jewish Standard. “Access to incontinence products can help senior citizens remain in their homes and communities longer.”

Ceragno, who recently received her master’s degree in gerontology from the University of Massachusetts, is her 90-year-old aunt’s primary caretaker. She said that she had been shocked to learn the high cost of absorbent products.

Invited to testify at a senior needs’ hearing last year, she realized that the problem was widespread, with some seniors forced to choose between incontinence products and food.

“The latest information from the New Jersey Foundation on Aging shows that 25 percent of seniors in the state cannot cover basic needs such as food, so they certainly can’t afford” these products, she said.

Huttle’s resolution “asks for Medicare to consider funding these products for people like my aunt, who get too much Social Security to qualify for Medicaid but can’t afford basic needs.” While the bill has passed its first vote in the Assembly health committee, she said, “where it goes from there, I don’t know. I think it has a long way to go.”

Ceragno said that her goal is for the United States to emulate Australia, which provides funding for these products through a system like that used for food stamps. In the meantime, after doing research on diaper banks around the country, she has embarked on public educational efforts, spurring the launch of adult briefs drives throughout the community.

One drive, held last summer at the JCC, netted some 6,000 absorbent products. Another, held in September at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, brought in more than 1,000. Ceragno also was helped by a donor working with the Red Cross and Somebody Cares America who heard about her efforts and provided her with 1,500 briefs.

“It was a windfall,” she said, noting that it took two cars to bring the products to Englewood’s Center for Food Action, which distributes them.

This month, the New Synagogue of Fort Lee is sponsoring a drive for the entire community.

“I felt that my rabbi” – Meir Berger – “has always been a champion for seniors,” she said, explaining that while he had been enthusiastic about the idea at first, he also was somewhat afraid of offending members of the congregation.

“I explained that it’s not for our congregation [but] that we’re a drop-off point for all of Fort Lee and surrounding communities,” said Ceragno, who added that she hopes that as people see the project moving forward, other communities will host drives as well.

Audrey Cole, a synagogue administrator working on the project with Berger, said that the rabbi, “always an advocate for seniors, knows how expensive these products are. When Marlene asked him to host the drive, he saw it as another way to help seniors.”

Cole said that while the collection has not yet formally begun, the bin, which stands in the synagogue’s front foyer, already is full.

“We’re getting a phenomenal response,” she said.

“People go through these products so quickly,” Ceragno said. “They have to decide from month to month whether to buy food or absorbent products. Someone told me that a relative missed a simcha because of this.” Since there are no programs that offer financial assistance to seniors in need of adult briefs or other incontinence products, “millions of senior adults are becoming unnecessarily homebound,” she said.

To learn more about this subject, go to www.facebook.com/adultcarebrief.

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