Their problems are not unique, but they started before the pandemic and will persist afterward. While many of us are, for the first time, feeling somewhat disconnected and isolated as a result of the enforced separation required by covid, people with aphasia have had to struggle with these feelings on a daily basis. With luck — and help — they can overcome them.
One of the greatest sources of help in our community has been the Adler Aphasia Center, based in Maywood. Founded in 2003 by Elaine and Mike Adler, its mission is to provide help for those living with aphasia and their caregivers and to expand awareness and knowledge of aphasia.
With satellite groups in West Orange and Toms River — and conversation groups in Bridgewater, Haddonfield, Hammonton, Maywood, Monroe, Morristown, North Bergen, Scotch Plains, and Toms River — the center works with aphasics to build their confidence and self-esteem. (Disclaimer: As a longtime volunteer with the group, I need to add that participants also get to laugh a lot, kid around with each other, and have a lot of fun.)
On September 10, Naomi Gewirtz of River Edge took over the leadership of the Adler Aphasia Center. Although she grew up in the area, she didn’t know very much about the facility before taking the job. “Everyone said what an amazing place it is, with incredible members and staff,” she said. “It’s everything they said, and more.”
She is starting her job at a difficult time, she acknowledged, and some of her members face a special challenge. “As family members go back to work, technical support at home is more limited, creating a barrier for some.” Since center programs have moved online, this is a real issue. She will spend quite a lot of time in the virtual world, at least for now.
“We’re not open, so I’ll be sitting in with a lot of virtual groups over the next few weeks.” Those groups, outgrowths of their live counterparts, include sessions for members, caregivers, staff, and volunteers. “It’s a challenging time to be starting a job, but the participation rate is pretty high,” Ms. Gewirtz said. “We’re attracting a crowd, and there’s still an opportunity to introduce new members.”
If anything has surprised her, it’s that “this far into covid, members’ enthusiasm and participation are so high. There’s so much talk about Zoom fatigue. After a while, you disconnect,” and your interest flags. But in this case, “when they show up, they’re there as much as they can be, wanting to be together. You can feel it; the emotion is there.” She is particularly impressed with the staff — not trained to lead online groups — “who are doing a phenomenal job in coming up with conversation topics week after week.
“Members think of it really as an extended family, a home away from home,” she continued. “You can see and sense and hear how much this place has an impact in building relationships.” It makes members feel that “they’re not alone in this experience. One member said, ‘I don’t have aphasia when we’re together. I’m not different.’
“This is their community, in ways that families and caregivers can’t be.”
Ms. Gewirtz grew up in Teaneck and moved to River Edge with her family — husband Jeff and two daughters, now 10 and 13 –10 years ago. “I’ve always worked in the nonprofit world,” she said, both for New Jersey groups and for a national organization. “It’s good to be back in the local area.”
Having worked for the breast cancer group the Young Survival Coalition and the Union for Reform Judaism, as well as for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, Ms. Gewirtz is most comfortable serving mission-centric organizations, where she has engaged in development, volunteer management, human resources, and operations, she said. She holds a BSW from Indiana University and an MSW with a concentration in administration policy and planning from Rutgers University.
Ms. Gewirtz said that one of her goals is “to raise awareness about aphasia and reach more members.” In the short term, however, the center will have to bring people back, “and figure out what that will look like.” Her strengths, she said, lie in a combination of practical experience and “caring about people. I believe in the quality of people’s lives.” It’s not enough to help grow an organization if you feel “removed from the mission. Now, even if I’m engaged in a business meeting, the members are right outside the door.
“While this is a challenging time for any nonprofit, the center has a lot of great supporters and is in a great position,” she said. “We’re focused on moving forward into the future, reopening in our three locations when it’s safe.”
Aphasia is a communication disorder caused by a stroke or traumatic brain injury, affecting 40 percent of survivors. While it impairs the expression and understanding of spoken language, reading, and writing, it does not affect a person’s intellect. The Adler center is the only facility of its kind in New Jersey, which has an estimated 70,000 people living with aphasia. (It is estimated that 2.5 million people live with aphasia in the United States.)
For more information about the center’s programs and services in Maywood, Toms River, or West Orange, or for information about the center’s aphasia communication groups in Belvidere, Bridgewater, Haddonfield, Hammonton, Maywood, Monroe, Morristown, North Bergen, and Scotch Plains, or its two groups in Toms River, go to the group’s website at www.adleraphasiacenter.org or call (201) 368-8585.