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AJA’s 40th birthday: a proud history, an exciting future

Roundtable participants, seated, Elaine Wolf, founder; standing, l-r Executive Director Michael Klein, Barbara Borkan, Steve Siegel, Jackie Cooper Melmed.Present at Creation — 1971

Allied Jewish Apartments to Open in August, Intermountain Jewish News, July 9, 1971:

Paul Miller, president of the of Allied Jewish Housing, Inc., board today said:

“We are very pleased to announce that the Allied Jewish Council Apartments will be opening during the month of August. The apartments are fully rented and all of our future tenants have chosen their new residences. All of us on the board are extremely pleased that the response to this project has been so tremendous.”

Mrs. Melvin Wolf, chairman of the admission committee, said that almost 500 applications have been received, but unfortunately it was impossible to admit everyone inasmuch as there are 149 units.

The Allied Jewish Council Apartments have been planned, built and sponsored by the Allied Jewish Community Council of Denver [forerunner of the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado].

The project has received a 100% loan from the federal government from the Federal Housing Administration.

Nathan Rosenberg, Allied executive vice president, said:

“The history of the Allied Jewish Council apartments began over nine years ago. The idea was presented to the Allied by a number of individuals led by Mrs. Wolf, who has worked diligently to make this dream a reality.

“When the idea was presented, the Allied undertook a study of the needs of the aged. The outcome of this study proved that one of the most pressing needs is low-cost housing for the aged.

“Another factor we discovered was that older people needed to be with their contemporaries in a meaningful living experience.”

Affordable ?Senior Housing

Nearly 50 years after Elaine Wolf started thinking about the need for an apartment building for older Jewish adults in Denver, and 40 years after the Allied Jewish Apartments opened its doors to the first lucky residents, Wolf’’s dream of affordable senior housing enhanced by services, activities and support is a reality that continues to flourish and fulfill its mission.

On Monday, May 23, at its annual meeting, Allied Jewish Apartments is honoring Elaine Wolf with an award being named in her honor, the Elaine Wolf L’Dor V’Dor (from Generation to Generation) Award, and which will be presented annually to an individual who has made significant contributions to AJA and the community at-large.

On a recent afternoon, Wolf sat down with the Intermountain Jewish News and current AJA leaders to reflect on the place of AJA in the community over the past 40 years, and to contemplate its role over the next four decades or more.

The roundtable conversation included:

• Elaine Wolf. Her mother, Lillian Kagan, was one of the original residents.

• Jackie Cooper Melmed, board president until the May 23 annual meeting. Her maternal grandparents and her husband’s maternal grandparents lived at AJA.

• Barbara Borkan, president-elect and board member. Professionally, she has marketed senior living facilities.

• Steve Siegel, past president and lifetime board member. His mother lived at AJA for 17 years.

• Michael Klein, AJA executive director. The day of the interview was his one-year anniversary on the job.

Prime Cherry Creek Location

IJN: How did you acquire this prime piece of property, a block east of Cherry Creek Shopping Center in what is now considered one of Denver’s most upscale neighborhoods?

Wolf: Bob Loup and Paul Miller were involved in the acquisition of the land.

I was in Cheyenne; my mother was here in Denver and she suggested building it. We searched for a sponsor and the Allied Jewish Federation [then the Allied Jewish Community Council] became the sponsor.

We do have the best piece of property in town.

The first apartment building, now called the West Building, was built and opened in 1971, and that was HUD-financed, and that was a plus for us.

No Longer ?Starting from Scratch

IJN: How does the reality of AJA today differ from your vision of 40 years ago?

Wolf: Forty years ago we had to start from scratch. Anything we needed, we had to go out and get.  We put a beauty shop in here, all the extra things. We put a synagogue in here. My husband and I at that time went and got someone to build the synagogue.

We had a lot of Russian people. We had to acclimate everything here so that they could make use of a prayer book and read it.  It took baby steps to develop it, but we did not have a hard time selling it.

Senior congregate living was a new concept then. It wasn’t like it is today. Today you have a choice of things. We were so good at it that we added a second apartment house, then a third apartment house.

Siegel: The beauty of the founders and early board members is that they were able to have a vision of what they wanted for seniors. They were able to draw a little from other facilities that were across the country at the time – not many of them – but the real beauty of it was to convert it into something that was uniquely Colorado and uniquely Jewish.

People came from around the country and assimilated into the Colorado lifestyle even though they were later in their lives.  My mom lived in New York until she was 72 and she came out here, and the Colorado lifestyle and cultural environment here transformed her from what she was for 72 years of her life into her thinking of herself as a Coloradoan after three or four years.

Cooper Melmed: My grandparents moved here from New York and my husband’s grandparents moved here from South Africa.  They went to rodeos; they did things that they never would have done.  They really loved Colorado.

People? and Projects

IJN: Did you hit the ground running with activities here or did you wait until people moved in and added that component?

Wolf: We did everything at the same time. We were providing a home for people.  Some things were hard to do . . .

We started with a skeleton professional crew plus some interns from DU.

Siegel: Barbara Caley, who was our first long-term executive director, came from a genetic pool that included Edie Sherman, one of the great gerontologists of her time.  That gave us quite the leg up.

Cooper Melmed: At one point, the property was owned by the Federation.  The Federation ultimately granted the property to us. We now own it.

Klein: It was a time when Federation had given us allocations to help out and that, too, has passed. We’re now pretty much self-functioning. What we collect from HUD and other sources is enough to run the operations here.

Cooper Melmed: We’ve been very fortunate to have very prudent fiscal management to get us to this point.  However, we see ourselves as part of this community, as partners with other major Jewish organizations in this community.

Wolf: We are a too-well-kept secret here.

Foresight To Become ?a HUD Partner

IJN: No annual dinner or community wide fundraising events?

Cooper Melmed: We do all of those things, but on a smaller scale and part of that of that is because we are so well-managed.  At least up to this point, HUD has been a very robust and viable government program.

We are  lucky that the founders had the foresight to become a partner with HUD.

Our board is a true working board. We focus on the quality of our programming. We focus on maintaining prudent fiscal management. We have also great staff that takes care of everything day to day.

Siegel: Everything that we have done over the years has been about enhancement of the core mission.  There are extra, fun things that we have done through fundraising. Early on, we developed a partnership with the folks that donated the van to us. That allowed us to do other kinds of community outreach. Now Michael is using it to bring seniors from other facilities to be part of our activities so we can do things together.

We did some fundraising back in the day so that our Allied Players could go and sing and play instruments and nursing homes and schools in the community.

Who is at Allied Jewish Apartments Today

IJN: How would you describe your population here today?

Cooper Melmed: We are somewhere around 50% Jewish.

Several times since the mid-80s, we’ve had a large influx of residents from Russia. There is still a significant Russian population, but the constant stream of residents from the changing political environment has slowed down.

We are subject to the same fair housing laws that everyone is, and the fact that we’re a HUD-supported facility is clearly very important and has a effect on who we can and cannot accept as residents.

One thing that has not changed is that we’re a Jewish organization. It’s part of our mission. It’s part of our name, part of the services we provide and part of the culture here.

Siegel: It’s an interesting thing, the idea of multi-generational culture.  You have grandma and kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren here for the activities, for Friday night dinner, for the performances. But’s also true on the board. Jackie is the second generation of board presidents from the Cooper clan.

Klein: Yesterday we had our Mother’s Day celebration and the place was filled with people. What was amazing what that we have a resident who is 103 and her son was here, and he’s about 80. His daughter was here — you have all these generations, including a little baby a few months old.

Non-Jews ?in a Jewish Atmosphere

IJN: How do the non-Jewish residents adapt to the Jewish culture and atmosphere?

Wolf: It’s called respect for one another.

Klein: There’s a lot of respect. A third of the population is from Russia, and we’re working with them to fit them in with the Americans we have here. We have Jewish people from Iran, Romania. We have Jewish people from many parts of the world.

There are cultural differences, especially when it comes to food. The Russians are looking for food that they’re used to.

We had a very interesting thing happen over Passover this year because Easter fell during Passover. We had a spring brunch for the non-Jewish people, but we had to make sure it was kosher because everything had to exist within Passover laws — and we pulled it off!

We have a lot of support from the Jewish community. We work with Jewish Family Service, the Jewish Community Center, Shalom Park, synagogues. We also work with volunteers.

We’re looking for volunteers or paid people to help come in and lead Christian services because I think it’s important for them to have a place where they can participate.

Wolf: We are so fortunate to have this man [Michael Klein] here. And I’m hearing it from everyone in the community.


Changing Population ?and Services

 

 

IJN: How do you expect your population and services to change as the baby boomers become seniors?

Siegel: We’re going to put in a nightclub! [Laughter]

Klein: We have a computer lab now. There are always residents in there emailing, surfing the ‘net, playing games. It’s the next generation, so I think we’re starting to get used to that in many, many ways.

People want healthier food. We’re starting to get people in here who are saying, “I’m a vegan. What can you do to accommodate my diet?”  Or, “I don’t want fried food. What are you going to do to make it healthier?”

Siegel: We’ve had strategic planning before but under Jackie, it’s been re-upped, and that’s one of the questions — what do we have to think about for the coming years? What has to be different?

Cooper Melmed: Part of what’s going on there is that when we look for potential board members, we look for people who can help us with these kinds of questions — people with experience in gerontology or marketing, rather than the big guns in the fundraising world. That has its advantages and disadvantages. We’re able to make changes right along with our residents.

Will Boomers ?Accept Aging?

IJN: The perception of the boomer generation is that it doesn’t want to accept aging. Do you think it will be a difficult sell to attract boomers to senior living facilities?

Siegel: I think we [boomers] are a pretty independent bunch, and not particularly realistic about limitations,  and we probably took better care of ourselves that our parents’ generation.

Cooper Melmed: We provide community and lots of activities, and those are important to stay young, to stay active. Michael has started to develop partnerships with the JCC and JFS to bring people here. We now have gym equipment in our penthouse. We’ve also worked on the appearance of the place to update it a little bit.

Competition from ?For-Profit Facilities

IJN: Is part of that driven by competition from the for-profit senior living facilities?

All: Yes.

Wolf: You have to be in competition.

Siegel: We start with a piece of property that no one is going to be able to compete with, but that’s no excuse to fall behind in other areas.

Klein: We now have a partnership with Legacy Rehabilitation — we have physical, occupational therapy here now. Within a week, we already have a dozen people who are in the process of getting therapy.  They always needed it, and before they’d have to go out into the community. Now they can go up an elevator and see a physical therapist five days a week. It’s trying to let them age in place as they live here.

If they don’t need any services, that’s fine with us, but if they need them, we want them to be able to stay here.

We’d also like to offer that service to other Jewish seniors in the community, so they can come here for outpatient services.

Residents’ Influence ?on Planning?

IJN: How much influence do the residents have in strategic planning and initiating new services at AJA?

Klein: Residents need to have greater input into decision making, so when we picked the interior design company, we had a resident on that committee.

We’re now looking at spaces. We need more classroom space. We have three residents that are on that committee because they know the building better than we do.

Then we have a resident food committee. We go through every recipe. If you don’t listen and respond, complaints can build up and people get angry.

We also have a board committee — the resident and community services committee — and we have the board president and other residents sit in on that committee. They’re sitting with board people. We have a green committee, a clean committee. We try to give the residents a lot of empowerment.

If you don’t know what you’re good or bad at, you’ll keep moving along in the wrong direction. If we’re not doing something well, I’d rather the residents tell me and the staff..

Borkan: It’s about going forward, knowing not only what the current residents want but what future residents want. What are the demographics? Colorado has a low senior population. However, because adult children are here, family members are moving in from other states. Another culture thing: people from New York have different expectations from those who come from Alabama. So it’s becoming more aware and adapting.

Downsizing & Moving from Another State

IJN: So many of the people here are both downsizing and moving from another state.

Klein: If you were to ask most residents, “Why are you here?” it’s either “My son is here” or “My daughter is here.” They want to be close to family as they get older.

Borkan: There is a misconception that people lose their independence if they move to a community like AJA. That’s not so.. After a while, a home becomes such a distraction — just taking care of everything. A community like this allows them to live without having to take care of the roof, the painting. People are beginning to see living at AJA as being more independent. There’s so much more freedom when they live in a community like this.

Siegel: We shouldn’t overlook the word “safe.” We create this safe environment in so many ways that allows other things to flourish.

Borkan:  When an older person is still at home, there’s often more worry among family members: “What’s happening? Are you OK? Are you eating?”

When a family member moves here to AJA, it brings the relationship back to parent-child as opposed to the children becoming the caregivers and worriers. They do have that peace of mind. Again, it goes back to safety.

Wolf: [To Jackie Cooper Melmed]: As you are about to give up your presidency now, what things would you like to see going forward?

Cooper Melmed: I’d like AJA to more of a household name, more how Shalom Park is, or how Allied Jewish Federation is. We are a major player among Jewish human services organizations. I’d like to grow people’s minds.

Klein: I want people to come to AJA and say, ‘Intellectually, socially, recreationally, all of that is right here under one roof. Kind of like a mini-JCC for our seniors.’

Borkan:  I’ve been director of marketing for two communities — they’re turn-around communities — we turn them around. That’s my focus – not only helping people see the benefits of the community, but also creating the awareness and being out in the community. When I first moved here, I met Marcia Helfant, who is the director of development here. She introduced me to AJA.

Siegel: One of the things that I think is undersold is not just what we do here but the impact we have on the community.  I don’t think the volunteerism that comes out of here and goes out into the community gets recognized the way it should. There are a million and one stories — Jackie’s grandparents, Elaine’s mom was active in the community, my mom was active at Rose Hospital, and all of those things happened individually.

Cooper Melmed: One other thing. We’re not a flashy building and I don’t want to overestimate the importance of having a flashy building. We have extraordinary services here. We’ve been told that over and over again by people who have expertise.

HUD-funded facilities do not provide the kind of services that we provide. We have an intimate feel, a real family feeling in here. We’re really proud of that.

You go into the dining room at meal time and you see all the residents down there and see how engaged they are with each other, the feeling they have for each other. We want to be able to maintain the level of service that we have, the feeling that we have in the buildings.

New Locations Planned?

IJN: Is the plan to stay put in this location with these three buildings? Can you add-on? Any plans for a second location?

Klein: There will be some strategic planning and we’ll start to look at what might and might not work. We do have a parking lot. We could potentially put something on that. There are lots of little things we could do, but until we get the full committee and get representatives from the community, we’re going at least to explore what might be out there.

I am a very strong traditionalist, but if you stay too traditional, the worlds passes you by, so you have to balance the tradition with the world that’s changing all the time. We don’t know what’s happening in Washington.

Generations Backward, Generations Forward

IJN: Any final thoughts on the 40th anniversary of AJA?

Wolf: Every time I walk in the door here, whether they’ve redecorated or not redecorated, I want so much more for all of the residents. I will never be satisfied. Never.  If we’re going to be in competition, then we’ll be in competition.

But we’re far ahead of the other places with what we’re offering them, and we have to let the public know.

Let people know. ‘You don’t have to cut your lawn anymore. We do.  You don’t have to do your cooking. We do.  And the person who can’t leave their house, suddenly will say, “Gee, I don’t have to do those things anymore. A neighbor? All my neighbors will talk to me here, not just one. And I’m safe.”

Klein: I just feel really blessed to be here. I think Elaine had wonderful vision, and from that point on, it’s from generation to generation. It’s been wonderful to come in and work with Jackie. I think we’re right on task to go forward. Having Barbara come on as the incoming president with her marketing background gives us the best of all worlds.

Borkan: I’ve heard about and seen major changes in this area, but with all the changes, AJA is still here. My own daughter, knowing what I do, once said to me, “Why wouldn’t anyone want to live in a community like this?”

Siegel: I’ve been involved here about 30 years. The beauty of it all, from where I sit, is to be able to sit back and see a really rich past and to look forward to an incredibly bright future. That’s not an easy thing to come by in the world of non-profits, or in any institution, and especially in this economy. There are layers of mitzvahs and wonderful things that have been done here.

Cooper Melmed: It’s very personal to me — it served my family for so many years, but also, standing on the shoulders of giants, I’m really lucky that I took over a place that had been extremely well-managed for a very long time. That made my job a lot easier. At the same time, we’ve had big changes over the past couple of years.

I feel very lucky that we got Michael Klein interested in the place. I’m very optimistic about the place of AJA in this community far into the future.

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News



Larry Hankin

IJN Associate Editor | larry@ijn.com


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