Coming back to the Jewish Home
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Coming back to the Jewish Home

Family members find community at Rockleigh-Russ Berrie after their loved ones are gone

Most Tuesdays, Lucille Amster puts her teacup Yorkshire terrier, Rambo, in the car and drives from Fort Lee to the Jewish Home at Rockleigh-Russ Berrie Home for Jewish Living.

Amster had visited daily – dog in tow – during the five years her husband, Danny, was a resident at the skilled nursing facility. After he died, she decided to continue the tradition on a weekly basis because she saw how much the other residents and the staff enjoy Rambo’s visits.

She and several others like her represent an unusual trend at JHR.

“We’ve always had family members come back as board members, as lay leaders, and as volunteers, but we noticed that they’ve been coming back not just to do a certain activity but to stay in touch with other family members and residents they’d gotten close with,” Sunni Herman said. Herman is the executive vice president, CEO, and administrator of the 180-resident facility.

“For some family members, once a loved one passes there is real feeling of separation from the home,” she said. “For others, because coming here on a daily basis has become such a part of their lives, they keep coming back. I have worked in different places and this is the first time I’ve noticed such a phenomenon.”

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Above, from left, JHR resident Anita Rosenfeld; her daughter, Linda Massarsky; resident Marilyn Wechter; Betty Margan, whose husband lives there; Jane Kaufman, the daughter of a former resident, and Rita Hoffman, whose husband lives there. Below, Irwin Tuchfeld, right, sitting with JHR resident Harold Cohn, goes there every Friday to participate in the nursing home’s men’s group discussions and outings. Courtesy JHR

Jane Kaufman of Cliffside Park decided to continue coming to JHR after the May death of her mother, Lillian Kaiser, who lived in the nursing home for more than seven years. On Mondays, Kaufman catches lunch at the onsite Carl’s Place coffee shop and stays to play mah-jong with a dedicated group of residents including Charlotte Poole and Sol Kramer, as well as Rita Hoffman, wife of resident Sidney Hoffman.

“I visited mother every day, so it became part of my routine,” she said. “The people at JHR are like family to me.”

The mah-jong games began during times she was visiting and her mother was occupied or resting. “I became very close to Sol,” Kaufman said. “I recently brought a kosher pie in to celebrate his birthday.”

Irwin Tuchfeld, a New Milford resident, came to Rockleigh frequently during the nine months his stepson, Gary Burros, lived there. Though Burros died, Tuchfeld kept up his Friday participation in the JHR Men’s Club, where about a dozen male residents discuss mutual interests such as sports and politics, and go on excursions in the community.

“It’s so important to him,” Herman said. “This has become an outlet for him, a place where he makes a difference.”

On a recent walkthrough of JHR with an outside nursing-home owner, Herman pointed out Kaufman playing mah-jong and explained the situation to him.

“He said it was an example of the ‘Starbucks effect’ and that he’d never seen it before,” Herman related. “The Starbucks effect is when people come to a location just to be near each other in a social setting that’s very comforting and safe. People don’t always associate nursing homes with a positive experience, and yet we’ve created an environment that’s an extension of their own home. I think it’s so cool.”

Charlene Vannucci, director of volunteers at JRH, said that relatives of former residents constitute a small but noteworthy percentage of the volunteer force.

“This particular group is very special to us,” she said. “A skilled care nursing or assisted living setting is not like a hospital – you really get to know the people who come to live with you, and by extension you get to know their relatives, and they get to know us and our other residents. We become a family.”

Among this group of volunteers is a woman who had encouraged her late mother-in-law to take part in crafts activities and now gives of her time helping in the craft department. Another became a volunteer in the gift shop.

“It can be difficult to come back after your loved one is gone,” Vannucci said. “But these particular people overcome that feeling because they realize volunteering here is meaningful and rewarding.”

JHR’s 10th year at the Rockleigh location – and the fifth anniversary of the opening of its affiliated assisted living residence in River Vale – is to be marked with a gala tribute on Sunday evening at the Rockleigh Country Club. The guest speaker is Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), brother-in-law of honoree Ary Freilich, immediate past chair of the Jewish Home Family.

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