Visionary look at the Jewish Home Family

Visionary look at the Jewish Home Family

Public television program films exemplary Rockleigh-based institution

Denise Rieser, recreation director at the adult day care program, dances with a client.

No one wants to live in a nursing home, the actor Sam Waterston tells us.

And certainly no one wants to have Alzheimer’s or any other kind of dementia. Ever.

These obvious truths come at the beginning of an episode of the public TV series “Visionaries” devoted to the Jewish Home Family.

There is no magic bullet for dementia, Mr. Waterston says. There is no pill to reverse it. But if someone suffering from that vicious syndrome were to be helped to live in the best possible way, what would that life look like?

Then the documentary goes straight to the four institutions that make up the Jewish Home Family, which is based in northern Bergen County and has its headquarters in Rockleigh.

Throughout the Jewish Home Family system, the disease’s victims and their families are surrounded by love, showered with patient and careful attention, restored to their dignity, and bathed in the disinfectant sunlight that comes through the large windows evident throughout all the facilities. The camera catches all that, along with the hope and enthusiasm of the staff and the heart-wrenching testimony of family members.

The documentary itself is evocative and sad; maybe some viewers can steel themselves and not sniffle, but many will find their eyes wet. The camera rests on the faces of people with Alzheimer’s, who sometimes look confused or far away, in some earlier, happier place, and sometimes are absolutely present. It looks at the caregivers, whose enthusiasm and desire to help are palpable, and at the families, whose ambivalence about their situation makes their gratitude for the Jewish Home Family even more real.

“‘Visionaries’ is a 501c3 nonprofit,” Melanie Cohen, the foundation’s executive director, said. “They produce documentaries, and their basic principle is that they showcase other nonprofits around the world that not only are making a difference but are doing it in a fashion that could be replicated by other communities.

“Lots of times you can have a very successful organization, but it could never work someplace else. What we do is replicable, and that’s what ‘Visionaries’ wants.”

The process of getting the Jewish Home onto television was long and detailed, she said. “After we had spoken with them a number of times, last January we filled out an extensive application form. I didn’t think anything would come of it, but they were very interested in pursuing a track that focused on how a community deals with families suffering from Alzheimer’s, and we could illustrate for them how we do it on multiple levels.

“We have a continuum of care, from your own home to our daycare program to maybe assisted living, and then, in the end, the nursing home.

“And we were accepted.”

“They came to us in August and filmed for two days in all of our facilities,” Ms. Cohen continued; the camera crew also filmed a woman in her own home, where she gets help from the foundation. Interviewers talked with family members and filmed patients with their caregivers, including, in one scene that was not only moving but also surprising, an elderly man who suffers from dementia. He used to be a vaudevillian, as his daughter tells us in a separate interview; when he is given a Charlie McCarthy-like dummy, his skills as a ventriloquist and his love for his craft both resurface.

“Visionaries” is a 30-minute program that almost always is divided between two organizations. The Jewish Home Foundation, though, is the only subject of this episode.

“After the two-day shoot, I said to the producer, ‘You will never be able to edit it down far enough. There is too much good stuff in there,'” Ms. Cohen said. “He said ‘You’ll be surprised.’

“And then three weeks later, he called and said ‘You know what? You were right.’ So they have dedicated the entire 30 minutes to the Jewish Home Family.”

“Visionaries,” now in its 19th season, is distributed through the National Educational Telecommunications Association. Public broadcasting stations across the country – including WNET in this market – pay a fee to gain access to NETA’s programming, which is distributed through a satellite uplink. (“I’ve learned everything you don’t want to know about public television,” Ms. Cohen said.)

This season, “Visionaries” will include five shows. This one will be uploaded on March 8; all the public television stations that have paid for the service will be able to run it any time they want to after that. Ms. Cohen does not yet know when the episode about the Jewish Home Family will run.

The show was screened at the Jewish Home at Rockleigh last month, and it is now available on the organization’s own website, The link is about halfway down the page, in the center. You also can google it.

You will hear Sam Waterston say that the Jewish Home Family “looks like home, and it feels like family,” and then he shows what he means.

Be sure to watch it. Just be sure as well that you have a box of tissues handy.

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