Profiles in caring: Four who labor to better other people’s lives
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Profiles in caring: Four who labor to better other people’s lives

Sunni Herman's Herculean task

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Sunni Herman greets Jewish Home at Rockleigh resident Saul Singer. Jerry szubin

Some little girls dream of being nurses when they grow up. Sunni Herman dreamed of being a nursing home administrator. And on Oct. 16, at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh’s annual gala, Herman will mark one year as the executive vice president, CEO, and administrator of the 180-resident facility.

“I’m very passionate about what I do here,” says Herman, a 38-year-old mother of three. “I am very driven.”

Herman and her husband, Jonathan, relocated their family from West Hempstead, N.Y., to Teaneck soon after she took over from Charles P. Berkowitz, now president and CEO of the Jewish Home Family, the organizational parent of the Jewish Home’s various facilities.

“To follow in the shoes of Chuck, who sat at this desk for 40 years, is enormous,” Herman says. “He had great foresight, caring and compassion. I’ve been very lucky to learn from the elite in the field and continue to be close to my mentors.”

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Sunni Herman

Herman will need to draw on all those skills as she – like other nursing home administrators in the United States – faces massive cutbacks in federal and state funding. On Oct. 3, State Sen. Loretta Weinberg visited the facility to discuss proposed Medicaid cuts of three percent, in addition to the Medicare cuts of 11.1 percent effective from the first of the month.

“That 11.1 percent is significant, and affects our sub-acute rehab patients who come for short stays,” says Herman. “The average Medicare patient stays [in rehab] about 20 days, while our average is more like 30 to 32 days. We are taking care of sicker patients with fewer dollars.”

Since about 45 percent of the Jewish Home’s residents depend on state Medicaid funding, Herman’s challenge is to lower expenses without cutting the quality of care that has earned the Jewish Home a top five-star rating from Medicare.

“We’re proud of our nursing staff levels, which are above state mandates, yet labor in general is our biggest expense,” she says. “Right now, we’re able to put forth a 2012 budget by tightly controlling staffing and overtime expenses without changing the schedule. We’ve also relied on the community for philanthropic support and will continue to do so.”

She notes that the home has a hands-on board of directors. Its members not only raise funds, but also frequently visit to do everything from teaching classes to staging concerts for residents.

Creating links
with the community

Budgetary woes aside, Herman has been busy capitalizing on the theme suggested by the facility’s address, 10 Link Drive. “I am looking at creating synergies and links with the community because I’m a big believer in communication,” she says.

Several new programs have come out of discussions she has had with a resident council she established, as well as quarterly informal sessions with staff members, which take place whenever it is most convenient for them, even if that is at 1 a.m.

She admits to working long days. “I put in the time that needs to be put in,” she says, nevertheless finding ways to indulge her favorite pastimes of scuba diving and cycling. “It’s important to mention that I would not be in the position I am without my husband’s support.”

In her previous position as associate administrator of Gurwin Jewish Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on Long Island, she worked until the last minute before giving birth to each of her three children.

“Chuck and I discuss often how administering a nursing home is not just reading regulations but really going a step beyond,” Herman says, “whether that means accompanying a resident to a medical appointment or arranging a makeover for a resident needing a boost. That’s what makes the Jewish Home special – attention to each resident.”

This is a value ingrained since childhood. Herman recalls “running around the halls of Kings County Hospital” tagging after her father, radiologist Abraham Pollack. “I saw how my father treated his patients and knew the name of every nurse’s aide, every housekeeper. He treated everybody with utmost respect,” says Herman, the Brooklyn-born oldest of six siblings. They shared a two-family house with her paternal grandparents, so she’s always been around elders.

“I got my [administrators’] license at 23. I knew from the time I was young that I wanted to run a quality nursing establishment,” she says. Her professional drive is partly a reaction to seeing her maternal grandmother struggling to earn a living after she was widowed.

“I believe a woman should have the means of supporting herself,” she says. “When I got this job, I called my grandmother in Florida and I said, ‘I’m the first of your 30 grandchildren to have the title of CEO.’ And she cried.”

Focus on resident choice

Asked to identify trends in elder care, Herman pinpointed several.

“We created the Jewish Home at Home a couple of years ago because part of our mission is keeping people home longer, either in their own home or in our assisted living facility,” she says. This program provides at-home services in monitoring, evaluation and care coordination.

“Another trend is the use of technology in healthcare. For example, we are looking into implementing electronic medical records to better communicate with hospitals and medical specialists. This will be especially valuable when patients must be transferred to a hospital in the middle of the night. We won’t have to copy paper records.”

Herman also sees an uptick in volunteerism. “We have dozens of volunteers coming in every week to augment the different talents of our staff,” she says, “and that’s not including all the school groups and dance groups that come regularly.”

Herman, who is Orthodox, and the board are working to bring younger faces to the facility’s “spectacular synagogue.” In mid-November, a full weekend Shabbaton will kick off a new program with area members of NCSY, the Orthodox Union’s youth movement.

“In the industry today, there’s a real focus on resident choice,” says Herman. The dining experience is a large part of this. Due to popular request, Herman installed coffeemakers on every unit that are available 24/7 (except Shabbat, when hot water is supplied), and formed a culinary club to give residents greater say in menu development. A newly installed sound system provides background music during meals.

With the intention of “creating a sense of purpose for our residents,” Herman and the board has been implementing new programs such as the Jewish Home University, launched in September to provide a formal structure for continuing education classes taught by board members and community volunteers. “The hope is that in June we’ll have a graduation with the Rockleigh mayor present.”

Also in the offing is a residents’ theatrical performance, and regular visits by students of the Thurnauer School of Music at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. Herman expresses delight in having discovered this community center. Her daughter Chani, a first-grader at the Yavneh Academy in Paramus, is beginning to take violin lessons at Thurnauer, and Herman works out at the JCC three times a week.

The Hermans’ older daughter, Yael, is a Yavneh fourth-grader, and three-year-old son Jakie attends Gan Yaldenu in Teaneck.

“I love the community here and the fact that there are so many different resources,” says Herman, a past board member of the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County. “We’ve really been embraced by the Young Israel of Teaneck community in the neighborhood where we live. I see us as one large family. It’s very special here.”

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