The author and her youngest son, Joel, enjoy Purim at the Louis Brier Home and Hospital. Her eldest son, Benjamin, was the photographer. (all photos by Benjamin Harrington)
When the Hebrew Men’s Cultural Club met in 1945 to talk about starting a home for the elderly, their project began with 14 men, with $5 each. The first home opened in 1946 with 13 residents. Now home to more than 200 seniors, the Dr. Irving and Phyliss Snider Campus for Jewish Seniors includes the Louis Brier Home and Hospital, and the Weinberg Residence. With many new programs and services, the campus has formed powerful bonds with the surrounding community.
This spring sees the launch of a new fundraising campaign by the Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation, which provides financial support to the campus. To interview members of the foundation board and staff about the campaign, I made my visit to the Louis Brier Home with both of my children during their spring break. Benjamin, 8, and Joel, 5, are used to volunteering in a seniors home, and are quite comfortable coming to work with me. Without grandparents in the area, it was a blessing for us all to be able to visit the home.
Before even shaking any hands, the first thing we noticed was the art. There is art everywhere, and not mass-produced art but carefully curated, vibrant images, full of life, movement and different textures. According to foundation president Harry Lipetz, this is thanks to the organization’s art committee. Every piece is a donation.
We met first with Dr. Judith Globerman, interim chief executive officer of the Snider Campus. Asked to point to some of the home’s distinguishing features, she described an atmosphere that is “more personal than institutional. Our staff feels it’s their home, too, and they tend to stay with us a long time.”
Residents also have a sense of agency, so, for example, if the seniors want to suggest changes – even to the art hanging outside their room – these changes can be made quickly.
Describing her place of work, Globerman spoke about energy, love and understanding. “The energy is warm, celebrating life; people’s faces here light up, there’s always life going on around you, even if you’re not moving yourself.”
Lipetz joined the Brier Foundation for this very reason. “It is a happy place,” he said. “I saw the level of caring, from custodial staff right through to top management.”
Bernard Pinsky, chair of the current fundraising campaign, can attest to the heimish (comfortable, homey) quality of the Louis Brier Home.
“Both of my parents lived there, as well as my uncles and aunt,” he said. “For a period of 21 years, at least one of my relatives lived there. My mom was at Louis Brier for 13 years. I was there a lot and saw for myself the warmth, the quality of the care. The program director goes into residents’ rooms personally to check in, to encourage seniors to join activities. It makes such a difference to be invited personally, to keep you connected to community life.”
The Louis Brier is the only Jewish home for seniors in the province. As such, it carries a certain responsibility, said Pinsky. He speaks of the community’s pride in being able to offer a life with dignity in a warm and stimulating environment to our seniors.
“Donors’ contributions make it a Jewish home,” he said. “They allow us to offer the special things that help people to live more fulfilling lives: kosher food, a weekly minyan, festivities for every Jewish holiday.”
That said, nothing prepared us for our visit at Purim, where we were greeted by staff wearing rainbow tutus, feather boas, glittery glasses and spotted mouse ears. As we stood in the entrance hall among the balloons, an elderly resident wearing googly-eye glasses strolled through with some friends waving groggers. Needless to say, this was a little different from my sons’ previous experiences of seniors facilities.
When I spoke with Pinsky, he talked at length about the Louis Brier’s music therapy program. Offered by a team of professionals, it is based on research that shows how music calls on a different part of the brain than speech. Pinsky observed, “People can sing songs they knew 60 or 70 years ago, when they can’t even speak.”
He added, “We have the best seniors music therapy in the province. There’s music every single day.”
The March calendar includes weekly Shabbat music, ukelele sing-alongs and jam sessions, as well as a concert of Russian music and a piano recital. We caught a flavor of this during our visit when music therapist Megan Goudreau played her guitar and sang one of the residents’ favorite songs, “Kol Ha’olam Kulo.”
The home was a hive of activity when we visited, with youngsters volunteering, residents – and a couple of friendly dogs! – milling about. Costumed kids came by with their families and sang on both floors of the home. Nothing beats the sight of a mini race-car driver delivering a “Chag Purim!” message with a huge smile to delighted seniors.
“The three things that concern residents the most – beyond housing – are food, music and companionship. The foundation provides that. It’s beyond public funding,” said Lipetz.
The seniors “are not coming here to be housed,” he added, “they are coming here to live.”
Pinsky agreed. “It’s amazing what we’re able to do. Loneliness is one of the biggest problems for seniors, so seniors with families who live out of town can be visited by special companions.”
Louis Brier residents have access to their own rabbi, Hillel Brody, spiritual leader of the Chava and Abrasha Wosk Synagogue. Located within the home, the synagogue is funded solely by the foundation. In other words, like the music, the companions and occupational therapy, it is a gift from the community.
The new campaign is a quest to raise $1 million. Pledges are for two years, so a $5,000 donation would be given in two portions of $2,500 each.
“These funds are essential to maintain continuity in the programming,” said Pinsky. “The home needs to budget 12 months ahead, for the next fiscal year. If we fall into deficit, these life-improving programs need to be cut.”
Added Lipetz, “For many residents, this is their last home. We want to make it their best home.”
Shula Klinger is an author, illustrator and journalist living in North Vancouver.