SZ Connect: Helping Community Singles Split the Sea

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By: Mozelle Forman

“In this community,” Ann Shamah tells me, “all you have to do is ask”.  And that is just what she did.  Ann and her friend wanted to exercise.  So six months ago she asked DSN if they would be willing to coordinate an exercise class for seniors.  And they were!  Her friend told a friend who told a friend and now between 20-30 seniors attend the DSN Academy for Seniors four times a week. 

The Deal Sephardic Network, DSN, was created in 2007 by a group of parents concerned that their children did not have enough social and athletic opportunities.  A small group organized the activities and found recreation space to rent.  The programs became very popular and requests abounded for expanded programming and for the inclusion of more age groups.  When the costs of renting venues became exorbitant, the decision was made to establish a permanent home for DSN.  In 2014, thanks to the generosity of the community, the building on Norwood Avenue was completed.   According to Sammy Sitt, Executive Director, today they have about 5,000 members.  When DSN was created the founders focused on programming for children.  It then expanded to include exercise programming for adults and in the fall of 2017 the DSN Academy for Women was created. 

“Seniors were not originally on the priority list of populations we would serve,” Mr. Sitt continues.  “But when Ann and her family requested an exercise program for seniors, we were glad to give them the space.”  The exercise program began in December of 2018 with about three people, and it “took off faster than we could imagine,” says Mr. Sitt.  “For the children who join our leagues and play ball here this is a part of their lives. They have school, homework, and friends.  For the seniors, this has become their life.”

Older Adults Seek Purpose and Meaning

Mr. Sitt is not exaggerating.  Eminent psychologist Erik Erikson developed a theory of psychosocial development that identified the eight stages of development that a healthy individual should pass through from infancy to late adulthood.  His theory is unique, as it includes later adulthood as a time of continued development, while other theories ignore this stage of life.  For seniors, the challenge of their development during this stage of life is ego integrity vs. despair.  As seniors, people reflect back on the events of their lives and take stock. If one looks back on a life they feel was well-lived, he or she will feel satisfied and ready to face the end of their lives with a sense of peace. 

Erik Erikson believed that adults need to create or nurture things that will outlast them, often by having children or creating a positive change that benefits other people. He saw that this drive does not end in older adulthood. It is important for seniors to feel a sense of fulfillment, knowing that they have done something significant during their younger years and continues to be meaningful. When they look back in their life, they feel content, as they believe that they have lived their life to the fullest. Success leads to feelings of usefulness and accomplishment. When older adults don’t have tasks to fulfill or a sense of usefulness, they could succumb to feelings of despair and hopelessness.  Being able to participate in the creation of meals for the food pantry or afghans for the cancer center fills the seniors with a sense of purpose and importance which they might otherwise not have.  And while they can knit in the comfort of their own homes, as Ann Shamah said, “Who wants to knit alone?”

Human beings are social creatures and as such need constant interaction in order to have a healthy lifestyle. People simply feel the need to be in the company of a variety of other people.  However, aging brings many difficult changes that contribute to a more solitary life. One of the biggest issues for seniors is that their social circles begin to shrink as the years go by. Friends, significant others, and family members move away or pass away. Even those who still live close by may be inaccessible due to limited mobility, especially once a senior can no longer drive safely. Age-related changes in one’s physical condition, such as hearing loss and poorer vision, can make it so difficult to communicate that it doesn’t seem worth the effort anymore.

DSN Academy for Seniors – An Antidote for Depression

When deprived of the company of others depression sets in quickly. Depression attacks the body in both a mental and physical way; it has been proven that those with depression often have more health problems than those without mental health issues. Depression can also lead a person to stop taking care of themselves, thereby developing a life threatening condition known as failure to thrive. 

According to all mental health and senior care organizations, the antidote to despair and depression is social contact.  According to the second annual United States of Aging Survey, older adults value relationships with family and friends above all else - and that includes money.  More than half of the senior respondents indicated that being close to friends and family is important and only 15 percent reported occasional feelings of isolation.  The responses also reveal insights on how U.S. older adults are preparing for their later years, and what communities can do to better support an increasing, longer-living aging population.  Programs like the DSN Academy for Seniors, which provides participants with structure, purpose, and fun, offer the perfect preventative measures to feelings of seclusion and isolation.

The seniors who participate in the DSN program confirm the national findings. Emma Schneider said, “This program is the best thing that ever happened to me.  It gets me out of the house because how much kibbe and sembussak can you make?  I have made new friends here.  I have a new best friend who picks me up and brings me here.  She saved me.”  Paulette Rishty, Emma’s new friend, scoffs. “I wish she would stop saying that.  I’m glad to do it and I’m grateful to be here.  It gives me a sense of purpose.  My children now complain they never see me because I’m always here.”

This sentiment was echoed by all the seniors I spoke to, and the camaraderie I witnessed was both playful and warm.  One woman spilled her cup of coffee as she was throwing it away.  Immediately, three volunteers came to her aid.  Her friend meanwhile, with a teasing voice, told her, “We can’t take you anywhere!”  The woman immediately turns to me and says, “There are a lot of nice people here.” She pauses.  “Her”, she says, pointing to the woman who just made the comment, “not so much.”  And they both began to giggle.  

Everyone Wins

This program is fueled by the tireless efforts of dedicated volunteers - Vicky Shreiber, Yvonne Tobias, Manie Dweck, Robin Shamah, Adrienne Shalom, and Terri Ashear.  Under the guidance of Stephanie Massry, Seniors Coordinator, the program currently runs three days a week with exercise, lunch, and an afternoon activity, plus another exercise class on Friday.  With the help of Mary Tawil and Lori Picciotto, the group knits squares which are then stitched together into afghans and distributed at the Morris I. Franco Cancer Center.  Other activities include baking and cooking. The food that is prepared is packaged and sent to the SBH Food Bank.  The volunteers are inspired by the participants, appreciating their sense of humor and commitment to each other.  Stephanie Massry relates to the seniors on a personal level.  “After my daughter got married, I was looking for something meaningful to do.  And somehow, with good luck, this position found me.  They (the seniors) don’t know it, but I need them as much as they need me!” 

When I visited, the group was in the midst of a vigorous dance workshop.  Whether seated, standing with a walker, or on their own two feet, everyone moved to the music.  They left the workshop exhilarated and ready for lunch.  Sammy Sitt greeted them and they all expressed thanks and blessings.  “I feel like I have 15 grandmothers,” he says. 

The program is funded by donations from community members who sponsor a month of programming in honor of a loved one.  “We have the easiest time fundraising for this program because everyone sees the value of what we offer here.  We don’t charge the seniors and they don’t have to be members of DSN to participate.  We want to make it available to whoever wants to come.”  Sponsorships are $4,400 a month and as Sammy says, “We get the most bang for our buck with this program.  The impact it has on the life of each participant is worth the cost of the program.” 

Our community’s ability to recognize a need and fill it is uncanny.  Generosity fuels creativity and organizations and programs materialize.  Ann Shamah says, “I told them we need something and in a minute we had an exercise program, and look what happened!”  What happened is that cherished members of our community were given a destination, a place where they are welcomed by staff and volunteers who are truly happy to interact with them and learn from them.  They have the motivation to get up, get dressed, and leave the house.  They socialize and laugh with their peers, warding off any sense of isolation or loneliness.  The DSN Academy for Seniors allows our parents and grandparents to feel productive and useful, and it gives meaning to their lives.  And that is priceless.