Growing old on their own terms

Jerusalem assisted living facility puts the residents in charge.

Elderly 224.88 (photo credit: Sasson Tiram [file])
Elderly 224.88
(photo credit: Sasson Tiram [file])
"One of the things that characterizes old people is that they keep talking about what they used to be before they retired," says Pnina Sulzbacher, director-general of the Nofei Yerushalayim assisted living facility in Jerusalem's Bayit Vegan neighborhood. Here, Sulzbacher says proudly, "each resident uses his or her skills to contribute to and further shape the community they live in, and holds a position that helps run this unique home." Beyond offering residents the opportunity to grow old with dignity, Nofei Yerushalayim is a place for those who want to continue to play an active role in their community. The building, which served as a hotel in the early 1980s, contains some 200 one- to three-bedroom apartments, all of which are occupied. Only 10 professional employees work there, as opposed to at least 40 in regular assisted living facilities. This is possible because the residents of Nofei Yerushalayim continue exercising their professional skills after retirement. One resident is in charge of preparing and serving the food in the cafeteria, another gives art classes, and others give enrichment lectures. Every four years, the house's tenants elect a new chairman of the organization, and all of them vote on the house's budget once a year, as per the regimen of available classes, recreation and services the house funds. Former Knesset member Tamar Eshel, 87 - who also served as an adviser to former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek and as Israel's envoy to the UN in charge of the Committee for Women's Rights - is one of the three founders of Nofei Yerushalayim. At first, she says, the home - which has been registered as a nonprofit organization since 1989 - was not self-sufficient. "We didn't like the fact that there was an authority above us, so we established a new company called Nofei Yerushalayim, and we decided to create a place that would be... highly accessible to the typical Jerusalemite." Eshel's co-founders were Eliyahu Lankin and Pinhas Pino Ginzburg, who were once on opposite sides of the fence in Israel's early years. Lankin was a Revisionist, a Zionist activist, an Irgun Etzel member and a politician who commanded the Altalena cargo ship that the IDF bombed in June 1948; Ginzburg was a Hagana member who was on the shores of Tel Aviv and commanded the attack on the Altalena. Forty-one years later, the two joined together with Eshel to build a house for senior citizens who still had control of their faculties. "Most tenants are... not businessmen, but people with average incomes," says Eshel. "We were strict on the self-managing aspect, even though we didn't know much about it. Shortly after establishing the place, we started visiting similar organizations and comparing services. We wanted to build a community that would supply all the tenants' needs and desires," Eshel recalls. There is always a waiting list of at least 50 people, and the lucky ones who eventually get an apartment can design it themselves with the home's two interior designers. Each new tenant must deposit a check for $160,000 - the cost of an average apartment - which is returned to the heirs if the tenant passes away. All residents pay a monthly fee of around NIS 4,100, which covers all facilities - including medical and cultural services - except for phone service and food. The facility does have a dining room, however, and the meals are served at a fair price. The facility boasts a gym, a pool, a billiard hall, a supermarket, two libraries, on-call medical staff and a variety of enrichment courses given in two languages - Hebrew and English - since many of the tenants are native English speakers. The place also keeps four apartments for tenants' relatives, who can stay over for NIS 90 per night. Most residents are busier than they were before retiring, and besides volunteering in organizations like Yad Sarah and Nofei Yerushalayim's geriatric department, they go to the theater, put on their own presentations, read and generally enjoy a satisfying standard of living. Aba Gefen, a former Foreign Ministry official, and his wife Frida chose to bring their furniture and lifestyle into Nofei Yerushalayim. Gefen is currently the house's chairman and writes articles in Yiddish for a New Yorker outlet, while Frida is a member of the house's welcoming board, which approves new tenants, and of the house's appearance committee. "We have realized that age has no meaning here and a person can be part of this community as long as he [or she] can call this place his or her home," says Frida. "The youngest tenant is 69 years old, and he still goes to work every day, and the oldest is 96, and she is still very vital and contributes." "This house has succeeded," says Eshel, "but one can never know what will happen in the next 20 years." A great change has occurred in the market of assisted living facilities, and today people have different expectations when they move to a protected residence. Besides, this market has become business-oriented, and ultimately it's all about the investor's revenue and not the residents' satisfaction."