One of the many unnerving aspects of this extraordinarily unnerving time is that most of us really don’t know how to help.
Health care workers know what to do — and they risk their lives doing it. So do supermarket clerks and delivery people and bus drivers and sanitation workers. And teachers work incredibly hard to unlearn much of what they know about teaching to reach children at the other end of the screens — even though it used to be that they saw those pick up the screen, they’d tell them to put it down! Now! (Sometime old habits die quickly.)
But the rest of us aren’t so clear about what we can offer.
We don’t know what the new rules are, because viruses don’t conform to our old rules; even when we learn them, they feel wrong. We have to unlearn so much of the ways of behaving in the world — the rudeness of crossing the street to avoid another person, the discomfort with even the idea of walking into a store, much less sitting at a table in a restaurant — and hope that we will be able to unlearn it all someday.
We have to accustom ourselves to avoiding being in the presence of family members whom we owe so much, because being with them possibly could infect and kill them.
We have to accustom ourselves to an invisible literally inhuman enemy.
So what do we do? How do we help?
Susan Black lives in Woodcliff Lake. Her mother, Lucille Steiner, is 96 years old. In February, she moved from Teaneck, where she’d lived for many decades and had been politically active for 30 years, to the Jewish Home Assisted Living in River Vale. It normally takes a new resident a little bit of time to settle in and make friends. Ms. Steiner didn’t have that time.
Once covid-19 began its assault, “the Jewish Home understandably and necessarily took the measures they had to take — isolation and social distancing,” Ms. Black said. No visitors — that included both relatives and the volunteers who are so crucial to the residents’ social and intellectual life — were allowed; that was unavoidable, but it inevitably led to the residents feeling increasingly lonely, and their children and other relatives feeling increasingly worried, at times even panicked. “And then the CDC came out with additional recommendations,” she said. “They want to keep the residents as protected as possible.” It’s appropriate and wise.
The restrictions tightened. “The next step was to keep everyone six feet apart, with only two people at each table.” Programming became harder and harder as the required distance between people grew. “And now, they have all meals served in their rooms, and whenever anyone comes in, they have the mask and the gloves. It is almost surreal. The residents, no matter how sharp they are, after a while they can’t even know day from night.”
The Jewish Home told family members about the restrictions on a Zoom call, and Ms. Black recalls thinking, “Lordy, lordy, no visitors, no programs. I know how important it is to have structure. A schedule. Something to look forward to. Something to get dressed for.”
Ms. Black brought her skill set to bear on the problem. Although she earned master’s degrees in architecture and urban planning from University College, London — she lived in England for many years — she’s spent most of her career in the travel and travel technology industries, both in-house at major corporations and as a consultant. She knows how to give presentations to both intimate and huge groups, she knows how to engage people, she knows how to read reactions in person and even online. It’s what she does.
So when she was realized what her mother and the other residents were facing — alone much of the time, at a far distance from everyone else the rest of the time, “getting their news from TV and radio news stations, and the news is terrible, and they are on the phone with the kids and grandchildren and everyone is anxious and getting sick, and then there is the bad news from the financial markets…”
It’s a dark time.
“So I approached Julie Cochrane, the home’s director of recreation, and I said that I had an idea,” she continued. “I am prepared to create unique content, specific to the residents’ ages and their backgrounds. I said that I would make a weekly series that I can present on Zoom.
“It will be a structured program that will include 20 minutes of a PowerPoint presentation, followed by 20 to 25 minutes of facilitated discussion, with questions that I will put together.”
That’s what she’s done.
The residents are allowed to sit in a room together, with the Zoom meeting on one big screen; they are spaced farther apart than social distancing demands. That means that no more than 10 people can be in the physical room, and therefore the virtual meeting. (Everyone is constantly monitored and no one is sick. No one from outside is allowed in. The meeting is possible, while shared meals are not, because eating is inherently messier and therefore potentially more dangerous.)
“The first one was about the power of positive thinking, with a tip of the hat to Norman Vincent Peale, for the residents who are over 80,” she said. “I did the research and presented a fun and compelling and funny PowerPoint presentation.”
PowerPoint? Is this a bullet-point presentation? Is there a cursor involved? No, Ms. Black said. It’s single images, and it’s all about how powerful positivity can be, and how to work toward it. It’s useful information, and based on the residents’ own life stories — some survived the Holocaust, some were Depression babies and remember the depths of despair they experienced then. She encouraged her listeners to pass on the wisdom they’ve acquired. “It’s a mitzvah,” she said. “By being generous with their experiences, they can help another generation. And only they can do it, because only they lived it.”
The next part of the presentation was the most important, Ms. Black said. “I opened up the discussion. The crux of it is the interaction. It’s the engagement. And they were very engaged.
“I went around the room, and I asked everyone to say what they are most grateful for,” Ms. Black said. “To a person, everyone said something about the family. Their grandchildren, their children, someone who called, someone who sent flowers. I said to them, ‘Look around and see how fortunate you are are. You’re here, and that sucks, but every single one of you talked about your family. No one talked about homes or trips or money or belongings. Not a single one of you. And you could have said anything. Each one of you said something fabulous about someone who did something to make you feel really special and loved.”
Other topics that she plans to tackle include the value of gratitude, the value of resiliency, the value of curiosity, and the value of friendship. Each is an open-ended topic, each is researched and includes some data, each can and generally does make at least some people laugh at least some of the time, and each pulls on the audiences’ life experiences and earned wisdom.
So with her twin focuses — engagement and uplift, which sounds sappy but aren’t — Ms. Black has offered to present her program in any senior center, assisted living center, JCC, or any other similar venue that wants it. So far, she’s presented it in Texas and Florida and on Long Island. She’s on Zoom; she can go anywhere.
Ms. Black’s inspiration for doing this — for offering these sessions, for researching and marketing and interacting, for volunteering to bring some spark of joy to people who most could use use it — “is because I learned it from my mother,” she said.
Ms. Black’s mother, Lucille Globus Steiner, grew up in Bensonhurst; her grandfather, Aaron Globus, escaped a Lithuanian pogrom, made it to this country by himself as a non-English-speaking 16-year-old, and eventually became a dentist. Her Lower-East-Side-born mother, Rose Bernstein Globus, was a concert pianist “who performed at Carnegie Hall,” Ms. Black said.
Lucille Steiner graduated from City College, then “got her MBA at NYU in the 1940s, the only woman in her class,” Ms. Black said. “She was a partner at Arthur Anderson, and then the CFO at Faberge cosmetics. But then I came along, and in those days, when you got pregnant, that was it. You resigned.”
Ms. Black’s father, Al Stein, was one of the Ritchie Boys. He was born in Germany, tried university but “had to leave because of the Nuremberg laws,” left when he was 18, got to the United States, and enlisted in the U.S. Army almost as soon as he arrived here. As a result of his ability to speak fluent, colloquial German and his native’s knowledge of German culture, he was sent back to Germany to collect intelligence. He left the service as a first lieutenant in the U. S. Army, “and he brought back a ton of intelligence he got during interrogations, which absolutely shortened the war,” Ms. Black said.
Lucille and Al moved to Teaneck in the 1950s; Barbara and her younger brother, Michael Steiner, grew up there. Al Steiner, a self-made entrepreneur, died in 1996. Michael and his wife, Robin, live in Montvale now; Susan and her husband, Moshe Castiel, have two children.
Ms. Steiner had far too much public-facing energy and ambition not to put it to use. She was president of Hadassah and of ORT and of the League of Women Voters and very active at the Teaneck Jewish Center. She was president of three different PTAs and of the Teaneck school board; she was on the city council for three terms. During one of those terms, she was also the town’s deputy mayor. “She was very civic-minded,” her daughter said. “She was an amazing woman.”
Everything that Ms. Black has done, including the programming that she is offering now, the volunteer work she created to enhance the life of people like her mother, people with sharp minds in aging bodies, further isolated now by the virus that is pushing people apart, is not only to honor her but is inspired by her. “This is the legacy and the gift of all my mother’s volunteerism and her civic-mindedness,” she said. “These are the Jewish values that were passed down to me. It is a message of positivity and engagement, and it only works when people are interactive and engaged.”