This spring saw the launch of the This Year Like No Other, This Year More Than Ever 2021-2022 Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation campaign, which is raising funds to enhance care and innovate the program and service offerings for residents of the Louis Brier Home and Hospital.
Early in 2020, the foundation stepped up to assist the Louis Brier leadership in its exemplary response to the COVID-19 pandemic. By doubling the home’s funding, the foundation was able to support the home in keeping its seniors safe and engaged during one of the most challenging years of their life.
The biennial campaign, which started April 19, will run to May 28. With the community’s help, the goal is to raise $2.4 million. Campaign chairs are Harry Lipetz (board president) and Lee Simpson (immediate past president).
The $2.4 million amount is needed to keep up with the home and hospital’s funding needs, which doubled with the onset of COVID-19. While the foundation is well aware of the many challenges of the present time, we believe this year, like no other, and more than ever, we must collectively come together to care for, and give a well-deserved kavod, to the people who built our community for us in the first place. To contribute and create impact where it’s most needed after the extraordinary challenges of the year 2020. To be part of ensuring that the physical, mental and spiritual needs of the home’s Jewish seniors are met.
Louis Brier’s background
In 1945, 14 friends known as the Hebrew Men’s Cultural Club shared a vision to create a home for Jewish seniors in Vancouver. That home, initially built to accommodate 13 residents, was established in 1946. Over time, that modest facility grew, changed locations and expanded its services, eventually becoming the Louis Brier Home and Hospital, which has progressed in step with Vancouver’s Jewish community.
Today, Louis Brier is part of a continuum of care known as the Snider Campus, which also includes the Weinberg Residence, a boutique assisted living and multi-level care residence adjacent to Louis Brier.
The Louis Brier Jewish Aged Foundation provides and distributes funds to the Snider Campus towards maintaining and fostering the well-being of the Jewish aged of British Columbia, while supporting the enhancement of their quality of life based on Jewish traditions.
Some quick facts
The Louis Brier is a 215-bed long-term residential care home serving Vancouver’s Jewish community.
The home and hospital provide three levels of residency (intermediate care, extended care and special care).
Thirty-five residents of the current population at Louis Brier are Holocaust survivors.
Eighty percent of Louis Brier Home and Hospital’s residents are diagnosed with varying levels of dementia.
The Louis Brier has 436 employees – 195 full-time, 101 part-time and 140 casual.
The home and hospital residents range in age from 50 to 103, with the average age being 84.
The Louis Brier is an accredited institution with exemplary standing (2018). The Accreditation Canada survey team spent four days at the facility and reviewed a total of 19 required organizational practices (ROPs), 216 high priority criteria and 295 other criteria, for a total of 551 criteria. The surveyors determined that Louis Brier successfully met 100% of the 551 criteria evaluated.
The Louis Brier was awarded the 2020 Canadian Non-profit Employer of Choice Award.
The Louis Brier is the only facility in British Columbia with a companion program and has the largest recreation team in Western Canada.
The Louis Brier had a single COVID case among residents.
To say that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on British Columbians would be an understatement. The virus has disrupted anything that we would call the normal activities of daily life. Most of us have had to make major compromises: where we go, what we do and how we can avoid getting the terrible virus. These adjustments have had a major impact on Jewish Seniors Alliance clients, who are already compromised by loneliness and isolation.
How we serve our clients and how we support our volunteers has undergone major changes – let’s give it the label “reinventing peer services.” In order to better understand what has taken place, I interviewed Charles Leibovitch, JSA senior peer support services coordinator, and Grace Hann, JSA trainer of volunteers of senior support services.
In the beginning
By mid-March 2020, the first sign of COVID-19 began to show its ugly head. The lockdown left clients and volunteers absolutely unprepared. Persons who were already isolated and lonely found themselves even more isolated and lonelier. As time progressed, clients were cut off from family members who might have supported their relatives through personal contact and social events. This was especially devastating for persons without family.
In many situations, volunteers were their primary contact; their lifeline! Being alone undermines one’s mental health. Being alone exaggerates one’s fear of COVID-19. Most of the clients were cut off from community programs, like adult day care. Spouses who usually spent time with their spouse in a long-term care facility were also cut off. Simple activities like going for a walk and sitting on a bench were curtailed. Elders had depended on having that human connection – having that human touch makes us feel needed and whole.
Volunteers meet challenge
The changing scene called for quick action, initiated by Grace and Charles. Instead of personal visits, the telephone would become the prime instrument of contact between volunteers and their clients. It was necessary to contact the volunteers quickly. Support for the volunteers would be provided by Zoom. This necessitated a steep learning curve for volunteer and client. After all, making and keeping the connection was critical. The three services – peer support, friendly visits and friendly phone calls – had to be reassessed in terms of the neediest clients. Each of the three services’ volunteers had different levels of training by Grace.
In some situations, a certified peer support volunteer was assigned to a person who ordinarily would have had contact with a friendly visitor or a friendly phone caller. Moving from in-person contact to impersonal contact was a major transition – almost like reinventing how support was to be provided. The JSA volunteers made the transition like veterans, with the extraordinary help of Grace and Charles. There was an increase in the contacts between volunteers and clients and an increase in Zoom online meetings to support the very special work being carried out by the volunteers.
Supporting the volunteers
Grace and Charles organized many activities, including outdoor picnics, weekly webinar seminars, a Chanukah party with a singalong and group support meetings every three weeks. The spirit and esprit de corps by the volunteers has been amazing. Volunteers will send cards to their clients as an additional way to keep in contact. Who doesn’t like to receive mail?
Challenging times require challenging solutions. Charles and Grace rose to the challenge and proved that, with dedication, imagination and determination, obstacles can be overcome. When the COVID-19 vaccine has been fully distributed, we will establish a “new normal.” This will present JSA, Grace, Charles and the volunteers with a new set of issues and situations. And, as the song goes, “we shall overcome” – they will face these challenges with creativity, empathy and caring.
Ken Levitt is a past president of Jewish Seniors Alliance, former chief executive officer of Louis Brier Home and Hospital, and a past chair of Camp Miriam. In 1985, he co-edited The Challenge of Child Welfare, the first textbook on child welfare in Canada. A version of this article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Senior Line.
The Vancouver Jewish Film Festival is set to go online March 4, and all the many offerings will be available until March 14. There are plenty of gems for viewers of varying tastes and ages, including a few Israeli films that seem to be nostalgic paeans to American comedies or kids’ movies of the 1960s and 1970s. But we start with romance.
The film Love in Suspenders opens with a wild car ride through Tel Aviv, as we are introduced to main character Tammy (Nitza Shaul) who drives like … well, an Israeli. When she backs into pedestrian Benno (Yehuda Barkan), this adorable slice-of-life gets rolling.
Her son Michael, a lawyer, warns that one more infraction will lead to the loss of her driver’s licence. Making nice with her victim (while continuing to argue it was his own carelessness that led to the mishap), Tammy begins what evolves into an innocent and unintentional courtship with Benno.
The luxurious seniors facility where Tammy lives is a hotbed of sexual tension – with lectures on the wonders of Viagra, a supporting character in the film that really should have received its own credit.
Tammy venerates her late husband Yoni in ways that probably exceed what would be considered normal grieving. Hanging on to her glorious past – Tammy and Yoni were a musical duo that toured Israel and abroad – versus facing an exciting but unnerving new romance is the conflict that drives her character.
Benno’s character is driven by all sorts of unnerving situations. Benno’s got his own problems with the next generation, but both he and Tammy handle their affairs like adults, despite being treated like children by their kids.
Michael’s horror at both his mother’s rekindled sex life and the uncertain provenance of the unkempt and possibly homeless Benno threatens to undermine the trajectory of their affection.
Kids aren’t the only interfering forces. The extravagant dining hall and luxurious hallways of the seniors home are brimming with prying eyes and wagging tongues. The roosters in the facility are put out that Tammy has scored a love interest from the outside, despite all their strutting and preening. The women in the building always seem to be nearby when Tammy’s male caller is coming or going from her apartment.
The title Love in Suspenders is a play on the phrase “Tuesdays in suspenders,” a program in which Israeli seniors get weekly discounts at venues like the cinema. The movie is an absolutely charming vignette of finding love at a later age and dealing with the impacts of a fresh future on a cherished past. It is a respectful treatment of older characters and their romantic explorations, which are topics too often treated shabbily by Hollywood and other depictions.
Not one of us will be able to avoid death. Yet, despite its inevitability, few of us prepare for dying and most of us put the thought of it to the back of our minds, even as we mourn those who have died.
The hour-long documentary Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing is almost a must-see for anyone struggling with the reality of mortality. It is a caring portrait of Rachel Cowan’s 18-month journey from a cancer diagnosis (a brain tumour) to her passing. Along the way, we learn about how remarkable this human’s life was and how her impacts continue. However, while Cowan was successful by almost any measure, it is not only her accomplishments that are noteworthy, but her struggles and her finding of strength in love and gratitude at her most vulnerable, when she had every right to be bitter and selfish.
Cowan was a civil and women’s rights activist of some acclaim. She was married to Paul Cowan, a journalist for the The Village Voice, and theirs was a partnership that extended into work at times; she took incredible photographs for his stories, capturing on film the best and worst of humanity in a tumultuous era. The couple lived and fought for their beliefs and really did make the world a better place.
Paul died from leukemia in 1988, at 48 years old. Rachel had converted to Judaism earlier in their relationship, after his parents died in a horrific apartment fire. The tragedy spurred Paul to explore his Jewish roots and her to search for God and meaning, which led her to Judaism. She was studying to become a rabbi during the period that Paul was ill and she was ordained soon after his death. At that point, still deep in grief, she thought, “Now, what?” How possibly could she counsel others when she herself was so ungrounded. She decided, “Choose life.”
She not only chose life for herself, but for others. While working at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, she established the Jewish Healing Centre, after seeing how little Jewish community support Paul had had in palliative care. She also established other initiatives and wrote a book on wise aging. As the documentary begins, we see Rachel leading a meditation group, continuing her life’s work. The film’s title comes from a comment Rachel makes about nine months after her diagnosis: “I’m living my life. Dying doesn’t feel like what I’m doing.”
With a harrowing opening scene, A Starry Sky Above the Roman Ghetto begins an historical back and forth between the terrible past and the present. The intertwined timeframes and eventual plot twists remind the viewer that the past is not really past.
Roman high schooler Sofia (Bianca Panconi) finds a Second World War-era letter and photograph hidden in the lining of a flea market suitcase. Her curiosity piqued, she begins a quest to uncover the story behind the mystery, which forms the narrative of the film.
Bringing the artifacts to her schoolmates, who enthusiastically join in the sleuthing, Sofia and pals then recruit students from the neighbouring Jewish high school to join in the mystery-solving.
There is charm in the cross-cultural friendships and some minimal tension when the teens meet obstruction from their parents and teachers. But the film is generally simplistic, too often cutesy and frequently hammy.
Before they have even tracked down the basics of the historical mystery, the students decide to turn their quest into a play. The movie itself has the feel of a high school production, and the fresh-faced, upbeat teen spirit seems incongruous with the Holocaust narrative at the heart of both the theatre production and the film. Impediments are too easily overcome. Archival research eurekas far too effortlessly and speedily fall into place. (The way the characters manhandle historical documents would make an archivist recoil.) An ostensible Montague/Capulet hurdle to a pair of star-crossed lovers is resolved in the most facile manner imaginable. The ending is unbelievably tidy – unbelievable being the operative term.
Continuity and fidelity to peoplehood and identity are core themes, but even these are handled poorly. For example, a Jewish boy gives Sofia a convincing explanation for why he must date and marry only a Jewish girl, but the next day he apologizes, apparently deciding that maybe continuity isn’t as sacred as a little amorousness after all.
The resolution to the larger mystery falls very close to home for Sofia, whose own life is altered by her discovery. This outcome provides some justification for the girl’s otherwise inexplicably dogged devotion to unraveling the mystery. But the whole thing has more of a Scooby-Doo vibe than the solemn drama the film probably set out to create.
There is some eye candy in the form of Roman architecture, including parts of the city’s Jewish quarter, but it is perhaps a thwarted COVID-era wanderlust to blame for finding fault that the film is not more of a visual celebration of the eternal city.
There is some decent acting and there are enjoyable components to A Starry Sky Above the Roman Ghetto, but it is hard to sustain the premise of an historical mystery when every twist and turn is foreseeable long before the ostensibly bright students clue in.
Fans of Airplane, Naked Gun and Austin Powers will settle right in with the ridiculous Israeli comedy Mossad. Upending the perception of the Israeli intelligence agency as one of the world’s greatest, the film centres on what must be Mossad’s most moronic agent.
The action begins with the kidnapping of the world’s foremost tech magnate, Jack Saterberg, while he visits Israel. (One doesn’t have to stretch the imagination much to conjure a mashup of Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg). It falls to Mossad operative Guy Moran (Tsahi Halevi) to team up with CIA agent Linda Harris (Efrat Dor) to confront the bad guys.
When Mossad hit Israeli theatres in 2019, it saw a box office-smashing open. It is an all-ages bit of entertainment, with slapstick buffoonery and sight gags – and not really a lot more. There is certainly plenty of violence, but it is exclusively of the cartoonish variety.
In addition to sight gags, smartass dialogue drives what there is of a direction to the story. “I’m a Mossad agent. Here’s my card,” Moran says. “It’s blank,” replies the recipient. “I’m a secret agent,” he says. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.
The kidnappers threaten to stop all cellphone service worldwide. When they offer a two-minute taste of the threat, global mayhem and violence ensue, underscoring the urgency of preventing the calamity. Suffice to say the only real tension in the 90 or so minutes comes from bracing for the next corny gag.
All the predictable scenarios are packed in – like a countdown clock to doomsday and other tenets of the genre – but in the most outlandish forms. Romance also figures, with Israeli-Israeli, Israeli-American and human-machine flirting adding spice and disorientation befitting a script that seems to view no joke as too absurd if there’s a chance of a laugh.
For a harmless multigenerational movie night, Mossad will deliver a few side-splitters and a lot of snickers.
Sky Raiders is pure family fun. In Hebrew with English subtitles, the audience needs to be old enough to read, but not even that well, as the action is pretty easy to follow. For the parents who may have watched The Love Bug when they were a kid, there will be a comforting sense of familiarity with Sky Raiders, though the historic plane that gets rebuilt in this movie isn’t anthropomorphized and the love story in this case is between the teens.
Yotam (Amir Tessler) is the new kid at school and has trouble fitting in. When he spots Noa (Hila Natanzon) playing soccer with a group of boys, and holding her own, he is smitten. He joins the game but soon requires medical attention for an asthma attack, having left his inhaler at home, despite his over-protective mother’s multiple reminders for him to take it with him; his father, a pilot, died a few years earlier in a plane crash. Noa has her own parental problems – her father, also a pilot, has dismissed her as, basically, “just a girl” – and her older brother bullies her.
The two teens share both the love of all things planes and flying, as well as parents who actively try to dissuade them from these loves. They find their father figure in the grumpy old man dubbed “Mad Morris” by the local kids, who, surprise, is a really nice guy, just sad and lonely.
When Yotam and Noa discover a Messerschmitt that had been left to rot in a plane cemetery, the two – with Morris’s help – set to restore it. And, not only to restore it so that it can sit in a museum, but so that it can actually be flown in the upcoming annual Yom Ha’atzmaut airshow.
With some cheesy CGI, young love conquering all, bullies put in their place, the ostracized taking front-stage, and happy parent-child reconciliations, Sky Raiders is Disney-esque and charming. Cue the music to swell, as the credits begin.
The Stroke and Brain Injury Assistance Organization (BINA), based in New York, awarded Dr. Cirelle Rosenblatt their Brain Injury Leadership Award on Jan. 24.
Created in 2003, BINA provides guidance and support to thousands of stroke and brain injury survivors and their families. Dr. Rosenblatt has been involved with BINA since its early days.
Dr. Rosenblatt has worked as a neuropsychologist for more than 25 five years in a wide range of rehabilitation medicine settings. She is a sought-after expert in neuropsychological evaluation and therapy.
Dr. Rosenblatt trained and worked at leading facilities in the United States prior to moving to Vancouver with her family in 2003.
She founded and is currently the clinical director of Advance Concussion Clinic (ACC). Located in Vancouver and Surrey, ACC is British Columbia’s only dedicated concussion clinic. She also serves as a consultant to national and Olympic snow athletes and teams, and other professional and competitive athletes.
Mazal tov to Dr. Cirelle Rosenblatt!
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Alison Klein was selected to participate in the CBC Hot Docs Podcast Career Accelerator, which took place during the CBC Hot Docs Podcast Festival (Jan. 27-29). She was one of 70 emerging Canadian audio creators chosen for their innovative Canadian podcasts. Alison’s show, The Self Advocate, was created to provide a forum to talk to people with cognitive disabilities who advocate for themselves. It can be heard on Co-op Radio 100.5 FM or coopradio.org, and is available on Spotify and other podcast providers.
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The board of directors of the Louis Brier Foundation recently announced the appointment of Ayelet Cohen Weil as the new executive director of the foundation. With more than 12 years of experience working in Jewish community organizations, both in British Columbia and in Israel, Cohen Weil brings an impressive background in nonprofit management, fundraising, strategic planning, community relations and development.
Prior to joining the foundation on Feb. 1, Cohen Weil held the position of associate director of community engagement at the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, as well as manager of women’s philanthropy and manager of major gifts for Jewish Federation’s annual campaign. Her previous experience includes working in academia at the Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya, as well as serving as managing director of Hillel BC. She holds a master’s degree in public policy, conflict resolution and mediation, with international mediation certification and distinction from Tel Aviv University.
The Louis Brier Foundation has a broad perspective and commitment in fulfilling its mission statement, and raising funds to maintain and foster the well-being, care and happiness of the seniors of the Snider Campus, site of the Louis Brier Home and Hospital and the Weinberg Residence.
“This year, one like no other, and after more than 12 years of working in Jewish communal life and being exposed to the many facets of the fabric of our community, I have been pondering upon the vitality in embracing, more than ever, the value of caring warmly and worthily for our seniors, the ones who built our community for us in the first place,” said Cohen Weil. “They are the living examples of our aspirations: the builders, the thinkers, the visionaries, the creators.
“I started working with the young generation in my years in Hillel and then at Federation across the community…. I truly wish to impress upon the younger generation how important this is for immediate family members and for the kavod we owe to our elderly. I would love to raise even more the profile of the centrality of this foundation in our community across all generations. This, for me, is thinking of the fabric of our Jewish community … in its full cycle and in its entirety. This is what excites me the most – to hopefully be able to contribute and create a large impact where it’s mostly needed after what we have experienced in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic…. To now be part, as well, of ensuring that the physical, mental and spiritual needs of our Jewish seniors are met so that they have a life of dignity, fulfilment and happiness, which they so much deserve…. Anything that would bring an extra smile, a feeling of comfort and warmth to Jewish seniors in our community is never too much, and I am incredibly excited and humbled for this opportunity.”
At the second program of the season in the Jewish Seniors Alliance Snider Foundation Empowerment Series, a few Simon Fraser University graduate students shared their research interests with the 70-plus participants who tuned in via Zoom on Jan. 15.
Jointly sponsored by the JSA and Sholem Aleichem Seniors of the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Studies, the Gerontology Research Panel: Eager to Share our Interests and Help our Community – What’s Up With Seniors event featured master’s students Lindsay Grasso and Kishore Seetharaman, and PhD student in gerontology Eireann O’Dea.
Grasso became interested in exploring the impacts of separating couples in long-term care settings when her own family experienced it. She said this problem of separation will become more severe as more couples age together. Current long-term care settings separate couples, depending on each partner’s individual needs.
The effects of dementia on couples is profound and, often, one partner ends up as the caregiver for the other, she said. When the point is reached that institutional care is required, being together would alleviate a lot of the pain, believes Grasso, who has received a grant to look into the long-term effects of separating couples, as well as the effects on visiting spouses, when only one partner is in care. In both scenarios, there is the loss of a shared life, shared memories and the beginning of mourning. It is important to continue the relationship through visiting, sharing activities and eating together, she said. The healthier spouse would need to monitor care and advocate for their partner. For her research, Grasso will be conducting in-person interviews with couples, and will also meet with staff to review their understanding of the issues surrounding separation.
The second presenter, Seetharaman, has a background in architecture and is interested in planning and designing dementia-friendly neighbourhoods, especially in Metro Vancouver.
Worldwide, 70% of dementia-affected adults live at home, so dementia is more than an individual health issue, it is a community issue. Communities must be more inclusive, he said. He would like them to focus on eliminating stigma, raising awareness, social engagement, accessibility to services, improving planning and design of public spaces and support given to caregivers.
In terms of design, he said, familiarity and easy recognition are important. Signs should be clearly visible and easy to read. Distinctive landmarks are helpful for finding the way, he added. There is some work being done in Vancouver in this area but it is not clear as yet how it will be implemented. Seetharaman would like to create a body of knowledge for designers. He is hoping to interview both dementia patients and public servants.
O’Dea is looking into volunteerism and cultural generativity. She became interested in these topics as an undergraduate, when she was volunteering at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and its L’Chaim Adult Day Centre. There, she encountered seniors who were volunteering with other seniors, and she is looking into the benefits on health and sense of purpose in life, as they move away from former roles. The strengths and capabilities of these older adults motivated other seniors to become involved, she noted, adding that each person’s aging process is unique.
O’Dea already has interviewed a number of senior volunteers regarding their motivation. She said many spoke of being motivated by the values of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world), and the passing on of Jewish culture. These responses led her to the exploration of cultural generativity, i.e., the desire or need to keep cultural identity alive and pass it down to future generations. This is especially relevant to ethno-cultural minorities, she said, and O’Dea will be researching four minorities: Jewish, Chinese, South Asian and Iranian. She will be studying the effects on both the volunteers and the members of the communities.
During the Q&A session, there were queries about dementia villages; the design and cost of facilities for couples in long-term care; and retention and recruitment of volunteers. The City of Vancouver is apparently looking into an age-friendly action plan that could include persons with dementia.
JSA co-president Gyda Chud reminded everyone about the evaluation questionnaire, then Shanie Levin, program coordinator for JSA, thanked the presenters. The entire program, including the PowerPoint images, is available via the JSA website, jsalliance.org.
Shanie Levin is program coordinator for Jewish Seniors Alliance and on the editorial board of Senior Line magazine.
How Well Do Treatments Prevent COVID-19, Shingles, Heart Disease, Diabetes and Anything Else that Might Ail You? That was Dr. James McCormack’s topic at the Jewish Seniors Alliance fall symposium Nov. 22. And some 100 participants Zoomed in to hear his answers.
Gyda Chud, co-president of JSA, welcomed everyone and reviewed the organization’s foundational goals: outreach, advocacy and peer support. She thanked Jenn Propp, Liz Azeroual and Rita Propp for their hard work in facilitating the symposium, which emphasizes education and advocacy.
Marilyn Berger, past president of JSA, spoke a bit about McCormack’s background, noting how amazing his talk had been when he addressed the JSA a few years ago.
McCormack is a professor in the faculty of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of British Columbia, a podcast host and YouTube content creator. He began his remarks by mentioning his philosophical beliefs, which can be found in detail at therapeuticeducation.org. He emphasized that he receives no money from pharmaceutical companies and his only income is his salary from UBC. His medical podcast covers many topics, including nutrition (the Mediterranean diet is recommended) and anti-aging creams (they are all the same).
Regarding treatments and medications, McCormack recommends being skeptical and checking all information, as some are useful but many don’t work well. For example, many new drugs are not much better than those they are replacing, and many doses are too high. (See jewishindependent.ca/medical-myth-busting.)
The doctor shared a number of popular beliefs that are not supported by evidence and, indeed, which science indicates are not true. Examples included the following myths: it is not good to swim immediately after eating; sugar makes children hyperactive; you lose body heat through your head; eating carrots helps your eyesight; and spinach is strengthening.
Also, there is no evidence that you need to finish all medications, he said. For example, with antibiotics, if you are asymptomatic after 72 hours, you can stop taking them. Although we have some incredible medications, McCormack said the Golden Pill Award, given for breakthroughs in new medication, has not been awarded for the past eight years.
McCormack stated that “so-called diseases,” such as elevated blood pressure, bone density issues and high-glucose levels, should be identified as “risk factors,” rather than diseases. He also said many medications do not alter outcomes. It’s all about the numbers, what is the relative reduction of symptoms after taking certain medications. If the reduction is only two percent, is it worth taking a drug that has many side effects? he asked. He said, in the case of cardiovascular disease, following a Mediterranean diet and exercising may have more benefit than many drugs.
Regarding the serums for COVID-19, McCormack said the work has been outstanding and the oversight phenomenal. Vaccines for contagions are very important, he said.
McCormack concluded his talk by reminding us that tests and treatments can help and/or harm people. It is important to think for yourself, ask questions and have hope, he said, before responding to many audience questions.
Ken Levitt, past president of JSA, thanked McCormack for his presentation and for his emphasis on being alert about medications. The participant feedback was extremely positive.
Shanie Levinis an executive board member of Jewish Seniors Alliance and on the editorial board of Senior Line magazine.
The new Jewish Seniors Alliance Snider Foundation Empowerment Series season began on Oct. 19 with a concert. As usual, the program was co-sponsored by JSA and a community organization; in this case, the Kehila Society of Richmond. Because of the pandemic, the event took place on Zoom.
Last year’s Empowerment theme, “Be Inspired,” was carried forward for this year’s season. Fifty participants tuned in to Music in the Afternoon, which featured pianist Lester Soo and vocalist Maria Cristina Fantini. Soo is an accomplished musician who has taught, adjudicated, accompanied and performed in the world of music for many years, while Fantini – a dramatic soprano, at home in both classical and popular styles – teaches and has established her own vocal studio.
Toby Rubin, coordinator of Kehila Society, welcomed everyone and introduced Soo and Fantini.
JSA’s Gyda Chud spoke about the alliance and recalled that Soo and Fantini had performed in a joint program in the past. This time, the musicians performed from Soo’s home, where he was able to make use of his grand piano.
The audience was entertained by a number of old favourites, starting from the 1930s. Songs included “Unforgettable,” “When I Fall in Love” and “Besame Mucho.” These were followed by works by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, k.d. lang’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and “Tonight” from West Side Story. The duo then switched to the jazz genre, with “Misty.” Lester played a solo of “Over the Rainbow” and he and Fantini ended with an aria by Puccini, “O, My Beloved Father.”
It was a wonderful concert. The only problem was that the musicians couldn’t hear the applause because the audience was muted for the performance. However, Rubin thanked Soo and Fantini on everyone’s behalf.
Dr. James McCormack is a bit of an anomaly as a voice in today’s medical debates. In a politically driven climate where most people tend to stand as either “all in” or “all out” with regards to their belief in science and research, McCormack’s approach is more pragmatic.
McCormack, a tenured professor in the faculty of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of British Columbia, a podcast host and a YouTube content creator, is a strong believer in evidence-based medicine. Well-known as a medical myth-buster, he dispels misinformation that often prevents doctors and their patients from making the most informed decisions possible. He will present some of his many thoughts and findings at the Jewish Seniors Alliance Virtual Fall Symposium Nov. 22, 2 p.m., which will be held on Zoom.
McCormack’s presentation will highlight some of the more common myths around what medications are actually effective and how doctors and patients can better work together to make evidence-based decisions. In a phone interview with the Jewish Independent, the doctor said his ultimate objective is to find out what the best available existing evidence is in healthcare to help doctors and patients make shared decisions on treatment plans.
This process is often “tricky,” he said, because of the many false conclusions and deceptive statistics that surround the medical field. For example, there are hundreds of clinical trials showing that statins, one of the most popular drugs in the world, help patients with high cholesterol, reducing the risk of heart attacks among 50-to-60-year-old patients from five percent to four percent.
“If you take a statin you can reduce your chance of a heart attack by about one percent,” he explained. “But what you will hear is that this is a 20% reduction in heart attacks – 20% is not a lie, but it’s misleading.
“If I come to you and say, ‘You have high blood pressure. That’s a silent killer. Do you want it to be treated?’ That’s not shared decision-making,” he argued. “If I said, ‘Your blood pressure is this number and your chance of a heart attack is 10% over the next 10 years and we can reduce it from 10% down to eight percent, what do you think of that?’ If that two percent seems like something you might want to consider, then we can try the drug, start with a low dose, make sure we don’t blow you away with any side effects, and then go from there.”
McCormack hinted at the large amount of medical misunderstanding around the world by noting his belief that at least half of all medical prescriptions are either wrong, unnecessary or the incorrect dose – a problem he says is driven by the challenges pharmaceutical companies face in getting their products to market.
“When a new drug comes onto the market, almost for sure the recommended dose is too high,” he said. “[Pharmaceutical companies] have to show that the medicine works. To show that it works, they have to recommend a dose that everybody responds to because, if you choose lower doses, you might not show enough people responding.”
He likened this process to attempting to estimate how much alcohol any specific person would need to drink in order to get drunk – a question for which there would be almost as many answers as there are people.
“This is a fundamental flaw in how we get a drug onto the market,” he said.
McCormack also brought up the alarming lack of evidence-based research on some of the most popular ideas in modern medicine and nutrition. Some of these myths include what we think about vitamins, the lack of evidence showing the health benefits of green vegetables like broccoli, and even our daily water intake.
“You see the same things with nutrition, where there are so many recommendations that are BS – like the idea of [needing to drink] eight glasses of water a day,” he noted. “Almost everyone in the world knows that’s the number of glasses of water you’re supposed to have every day, but there is not a single study that’s ever looked at that. It’s a made-up number mentioned by someone maybe 50 years ago, but it becomes incredibly powerful when everyone assumes it to be true. The evidence is pretty clear when it comes to water – you drink when you’re thirsty.”
McCormack became a myth-buster when, earlier in his career, he discovered a lack of evidence backing up the so-called facts that many of his mentors presented to him.
“I went looking for the evidence and I wondered why they were telling me this if [there was a lack of] evidence. It didn’t make any sense,” he said. “If good, smart people who are trying to do a good thing are telling me unintentional BS, why is that? So, ever since then, I’ve been very inquisitive.”
While he does his best to provide as much myth-busting content as possible to the public, McCormack warned that there’s no simple solution to helping patients understand the great nuances surrounding medical options.
“It’s very tricky,” he said. “Patients don’t feel empowered to make a decision because that’s not part of the ethos of how we do medicine. There are people who would say to their doctor, ‘Just tell me what to do.’ And that’s totally fine as long as the doctor or the pharmacist knows the best available evidence.”
While McCormack will share some of his key discoveries at the symposium, fans of his work can also listen to any of the 460-plus episodes of his podcast, The Best Science Medicine Podcast, which he has nicknamed The BS Medicine Podcast.
“We take the BS out of the BS,” he laughed, before emphasizing that he and co-host Michael Allan approach their shows with a sense of humour.
McCormack also produces various music video parodies on his YouTube channel under his own name. The videos, he said, are a labour of love. “I do [them] because I’m a tenured professor and I can do whatever I want,” he said, tongue-in-cheek. “Which is kind of nice.”
JSA members/supporters will receive an email with the Zoom link to join the virtual symposium. For more information on and to register for the JSA symposium, contact the JSA office at [email protected] or 604-732-1555.
Kyle Berger is Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver sports coordinator, and a freelance writer living in Richmond.
Editor’s note: This article has been amended from the print version to include more detailed information on how to access the event on Zoom.
The finished scarves, each individually packaged, and including a warm message. (photo from Legacy Senior Living)
Last month, residents of Legacy Senior Living (the Leo Wertman Residence) gave a gift of warmth to residents of New Beginnings, a temporary housing complex for Indigenous individuals. On Oct. 7, nearly 100 hand-knitted scarves, each with an uplifting message – such as “Warm Wishes,” “Smile” and “Enjoy!” – were delivered from the independent living retirement home in Vancouver’s Oakridge area to the housing complex, which is located at Heather and 33rd.
The idea for the project came almost a year ago. It was organized in January, and jumpstarted by a $200 grant from the Vancouver Foundation to fund the purchase of wool. Between 10 and 20 residents regularly participated; some teaching others how to knit, others brushing up on their knitting skills. They worked together while socializing, coming together weekly for a knit-and-chat session.
“When my mother lived at Legacy, I used to knit with her for therapeutic purposes,” said Annette Wertman, who organized the effort. “Then, I thought, maybe knitting would be a good activity for the residents of Legacy Senior Living. We had a meeting of those interested – and the idea took off! We applied for a grant and were so pleased to receive one from the Vancouver Foundation. While the COVID lockdown altered the way we gathered to knit together, we followed the health protocols and still managed to knit 98 scarves! And it’s perfect that we finished this in October, a more appropriate time to donate these scarves.”
Not only was it a more appropriate time weather-wise, but the donation took place around Thanksgiving. The Legacy knitters were grateful to be able to make “a small but warm contribution to the community.”
“Our residence, built in memory of Leo Wertman, is a vision of inclusion, diversity and philanthropy within the Jewish community, and of our broader local community,” said Wertman, a cousin of the residence’s namesake. “We all felt very good about our project and have already begun the next project – toques and blankets!”
The garden in the courtyard of the Louis Brier. (photo by David J. Litvak)
It hasn’t been easy for any of the staff and companions working at Dr. Irving and Phyliss Snider Campus for Jewish Seniors – which comprises the Louis Brier Home and Hospital and the Weinberg Residence – during the pandemic. Nor has it been easy for the residents and their families. However, seeing a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor happily walking down the hall or a beaming bubbe (who was born in Lithuania) wheeling herself from one end of the facility to the other, or another resident greeting everyone with a hearty “Aye Yai Yai,” I can’t help but smile. Despite the challenges, we have been lucky here, so far, to have escaped the worst of COVID-19.
My pandemic journey at the Louis Brier began in January, when I was hired on a permanent, part-time basis as a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) during an influenza outbreak that foreshadowed what lay ahead. I was hired to replace one of the Brier’s longtime mashgiachs – the facility employs two on a part-time basis – and I had big shoes to fill. The previous mashgiach not only provided kosher supervision in the kitchens but entertained residents with his piano playing, puppet shows and conducting of services in the Louis Brier synagogue on Saturday mornings and weekdays.
Being employed as a mashgiach at the Louis Brier during the pandemic has had many challenging moments – slicing meat and deboning turkey were particularly painful for me because I am a vegetarian, but, luckily, I am no longer required to perform those tasks. Anyways, prior to the pandemic, Shabbat services would be held on Saturday mornings, with a Kiddush lunch afterwards that featured herring, gefilte fish, pastries, challah and grape juice. It was a real highlight for the residents, particularly the lunch. However, due to the pandemic, the weekly services and special meal were canceled. In addition, the monthly Shabbat services that were led by Cantor Yaacov Orzech and the Kol Simcha Choir were canceled, as were Friday night services. It is only recently that Louis Brier chaplin Chazzan Rob Menes has resumed the Friday night services and, in response to a personal request from one of the residents, informal Saturday morning services have also returned.
On Rosh Hashanah, a full service for the residents was offered, thanks to Richard Wood and Adam Ben Dov, members of the Louis Brier’s religious committee, and Rabbi David Rosenfeld of Chabad, who sounded the shofar for the residents. Menes has been blowing the shofar every morning at the Louis Brier, as well as at the Weinberg Residence, on occasion. While no family members were able to join the services, Rosh Hashanah was celebrated, albeit in a low-key manner.
Other holidays that have occurred since the pandemic have also been observed quietly. Passover at both the Brier and Weinberg was particularly stressful, as kosher-for-Passover products that would normally be available could not be ordered. The facility’s food services manager valiantly persevered to make sure people were provided kosher food during the holiday, however, and the other mashgiach and I – with the help of Rabbi Mendy Feigelstock and Schneur Feigelstock of Kosher Check – worked to keep the home kosher and chametz free. It wasn’t easy. It was a subdued Passover in another way, because the seders at the Weinberg were canceled to ensure that the residents were kept safe from the virus.
That has been the underlying principle since the pandemic began – keeping residents safe. From the outset in March, the Louis Brier’s chief executive officer, David Keselman, has shown foresight. For example, he canceled the annual Purim Megillah reading and Purim parties, which would have taken place just as the coronavirus was taking off.
In addition, from the outset of the outbreak, companions and other employees at the Louis Brier have been prohibited from working at more than one job. These decisions and the dedication of the staff and administration ensured the safety of the residents. Not one resident of the Louis Brier or the Weinberg Residence has contracted the virus.
To show his appreciation of the job that has been done at the Louis Brier, one resident, a fellow North End Winnipegger, nominated the administration for the Order of British Columbia, the Order of Canada and the Nobel Peace Prize. The resident, who started the badminton club at the home and maintains a tulip garden in its courtyard – the only outdoor space residents have been able to go for fresh air during the pandemic – marveled at how lucky he and other residents are. In the Daily Blah, a newsletter he published, he noted: “The Louis Brier does not have the virus, has a beautiful garden and we can play badminton.”
While it is true that the residents have been physically safe and have not contracted the virus, the pandemic has taken a psychological toll on everyone in the building. Until recently, due to provincial prohibitions, residents were not allowed outside visitors, other than seeing loved ones through the glass of the front lobby, and talking to them on their cellphones. Now, residents are allowed to have scheduled visits with loved ones outside the front entrance of the Louis Brier and outside the Weinberg, as well. It is a small victory that will hopefully boost the morale of the residents.
As for me, I just keep thinking of 100-year-old Louis Brier resident who tells me that, as long as he can eat, talk and walk, it’s a good day! The resilience of residents like him reminds me to always be grateful for the basic things in life.
David J. Litvak is a prairie refugee from the North End of Winnipeg who is a freelance writer, former Voice of Peace and Co-op Radio broadcaster and an “accidental publicist.” His articles have been published in the Forward, Globe and Mail and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His website is cascadiapublicity.com.