NYC nonprofit keeps seniors connected across the generations

NYC nonprofit keeps seniors connected across the generations

Intergenerational chess is just one of the many ways Dorot eases social isolation of NYC elderly.
Photos courtesy of Dorot

With a network of volunteers from teenagers to young professionals and entire families, Dorot alleviates social isolation among the elderly by keeping them connected across the generations.

After school on a darkening December afternoon, a 12-year-old boy dashed into a slender building tucked near brownstones on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

"Chess," he said to the front-desk attendant before bounding up the stairs.

Children from sixth to 11th grades joined him in an upstairs room, took off their coats and scanned the cookies arrayed near the door. An organizer pointed them to tables where chess sets and opponents were waiting.

Chess players at Dorot
Dorot chess players young and old plot their next moves. 

"You have to move your king; you're under attack," said the boy, Alan Majo, to his opponent, Barbara Garrison. "You can move your rook there and do the same to me."

The players weren't competitors from rival clubs or coaches training the next generation of masters. They weren't even peers. Majo is 12; Garrison, 83. And theirs was just one of eight similar matches underway, all pairings between young and old.

The players were participants in intergenerational chess, one of hundreds of diverse activities offered by Dorot, a New York nonprofit dedicated to helping the elderly.

"Thousands of older adults are living here who are truly isolated and lonely," said Mark Meridy, Dorot's executive director. "A primary focus of all our programming is to address the issue of social isolation. We do that through an intergenerational model."

Using a network of volunteers, from teenagers to young professionals and entire families, Dorot provides support services and activities to older residents on Manhattan's East and West Sides and in Westchester County, just north of the city. Although the nonprofit is a nonsectarian, culturally Jewish agency, its services and volunteer opportunities are open to all.

Because social connections are essential for health, Dorot can indirectly get at a variety of physical and emotional issues by focusing on isolation, Meridy said. Studies have shown that isolation can lead to hypertension, depression and, in some cases, early onset of dementia, he said.

"For many of our seniors, Dorot is their one social connection," Meridy said. "There is also a tremendous amount that young people get out of visiting older adults."

Dorot, which means "generations" in Hebrew, was founded in 1976 by Columbia University graduate students and alumni who were concerned about elderly residents in neighborhoods near the campus. As the residents aged and family and friends moved away or died, many lost support systems and were alone. The students began to visit them and deliver packages around the holidays. Soon, Dorot was born.

Jewish roots and a social-work approach

Inspired by and rooted in Jewish tradition, Dorot is an innovative organization that serves Jews and non-Jews alike and welcomes volunteers of all ages and faiths.

Nationally recognized for its work, the nonprofit keeps seniors connected through programs ranging from home visits and meal delivery to cooking classes, a book club and discussion groups. With its social-work approach, Dorot also gives both seniors and volunteers a lot of support. And that, along with the many program options, keeps both volunteers and seniors connected with the organization for years.

"Once you're involved with Dorot, you're always involved with Dorot," Meridy said.

At a time when nonprofits and faith organizations often struggle to find volunteers and attract young people, Dorot has an abundance of both. Last fall, the organization had to create a waiting list for the many volunteers who wanted to help at the annual intergenerational Thanksgiving dinner.

Dorot also routinely receives far more applicants for its high school and college internships than it has positions to fill. And the breadth of volunteer opportunities keeps volunteers coming back year after year, even through the kinds of life changes that often sideline volunteers at other organizations -- marriage, children and increased work responsibilities.

Well-organized programs and extensive training play a critical role in recruiting and retaining volunteers, Meridy said. The organization wants volunteers to have a positive experience, but the ultimate beneficiaries are the senior citizens.

"It's not just a simple volunteer experience," he said. "It's really about improving the quality of life for older adults."

A relentless focus on addressing social isolation shapes all Dorot programs, even meal delivery to homebound seniors. Other nonprofits that deliver meals, for example, might simply drop off a meal preselected for the senior. At Dorot, volunteers call seniors weekly to take their orders for kosher meals. That call, which may turn into a conversation, is an important interaction that may yield vital information that can further shape the delivery of services.

"If there are any issues, if the senior sounds confused or agitated, the volunteer will circle back with the social worker," Meridy said. "There's a circle, a loop, of social engagement."

That "feedback loop" is part of Dorot's social-work model, which includes volunteer training, ongoing monitoring of elderly clients and an evaluation system for volunteers and seniors.

Dorot matches seniors and volunteers with great care. It offers a wide variety of volunteer opportunities and commitment levels, attracting volunteers from middle schoolers to people in their 60s. The nonprofit also collaborates with organizations and schools, which become a kind of volunteer pipeline.

Authentic, needs-based programs

"Everything we do starts from, 'What does it mean for the senior?'" said Judith Turner, Dorot's director of volunteer services. "Everything is authentic and needs-based."

Every Dorot program is a partnership between the volunteer, the professional and the senior, Turner said.

The chess program, for example, began with a social worker's keen eye for matching the elderly and volunteers, which in turn led to the formation of rich, authentic friendships and, eventually, an entirely new program.

Herman Bomze prepares to make a move against competitor and friend Zachary Targoff. Photo by Brittany Blake
Herman Bomze prepares to make a move against
competitor and friend Zachary Targoff.
Photo by Brittany Blake

In late 2012, a Dorot social worker met with Herman Bomze, now 90, for an initial interview. Bomze, who came to the U.S. in 1939 to escape the Nazis, is an accomplished chess player.

When the social worker asked Bomze what he wanted in a volunteer visitor, he asked for a chess player who could challenge him.

About the same time, Zachary Targoff's family approached Dorot looking for a bar mitzvah service project that might also allow him to play chess. The Dorot social worker matched the two.

"Once it started, I knew it was going to be really fun for both of us," Zachary said. "We were going to become friends, but it was also going to be somewhat competitive between us."

For the first year or so, Zachary visited Bomze at his home to play chess weekly; the pair now plays about twice a month, depending on Zachary's schedule.

"He was the best chess player I've ever met," Bomze said of Zachary. "He pulls a rabbit out of a hat. You don't see it coming."

Bomze's father, Baruch Bomze, taught him to play chess. When Bomze and his family fled Vienna, his father was not allowed to go with them because the United States would not grant him a visa. He was later killed in the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Bomze brought his father's chess set with him to America, but he could never bring himself to use it again.

As Bomze and Zachary became friends and competitors, the Bomze family decided to give Zachary the chess set as a bar mitzvah gift. At the November 2013 bar mitzvah, Zachary and his family invited guests to donate to Dorot and suggested the creation of a chess program, which now meets at the Dorot offices.

"Chess is not generational at all," Bomze said. "You can play people much older or much younger, because chess ability does not depend on age."

Genuine intergenerational connections

Home visits are a powerful avenue for building genuine connections that transcend age. Dorot offers a variety of options and time commitments for both individuals and families. Volunteers may choose one-time visits, occasional visits around holidays or weekly visits. The Family Circle program allows families with young children to register for one-time commitments.

"We never send a volunteer to a senior's home unless a social worker has done a home assessment," Turner said. "It's the process of getting to know them as individuals, getting to know their needs, their challenges. Every senior is assigned a social worker. They stay in touch."

Dorot's Passover Package Delivery volunteers make a difference in the lives of NYC seniors.
Dorot's Passover Package Delivery volunteers
make a difference in the lives of NYC seniors.

In matching volunteers and seniors, the staff consider many questions. Is the older adult interested in having a family visit? Does the senior feel comfortable around children? Does anyone involved have severe allergies? Is the senior's residence large enough to accommodate a visit from a family?

"It's a very hands-on approach that is labor-intensive," Meridy said.

Before the first home visit, which is scheduled by Dorot, volunteers undergo orientation and training. Volunteers are advised not to make promises they can't keep. If they want to visit a senior again after participating in a one-time program, they know to alert Dorot first, before promising the senior. Volunteers for weekly visits are reminded to call and reconfirm their regular visits.

After the visits, volunteers complete a feedback form, which is entered into a database that includes all seniors and volunteers. The completed form can offer valuable information not only about Dorot's programs but also about how well the seniors are doing.

A volunteer might note an overflowing trash can, which alone might mean nothing. But if another volunteer notices the same thing on a later visit, it could be a sign of a larger problem requiring follow-up from a social worker.

Fostering intergenerational relationships requires support, Meridy said. Organizations seeking to encourage such friendships should consider utilizing a social worker or an experienced volunteer coordinator who can provide training, match volunteers and seniors according to their interests and compatibility, and offer support to both parties if issues arise in the relationship. That planning and support are worth the effort, he said.

"Volunteers not only serve as emissaries of a community," he said. "They also provide benefits that family cannot."

Where volunteers come from

Volunteers find Dorot through a variety of sources: recommendations, referral agencies and online searches. Schools often approach Dorot to set up programs, sometimes as part of a community-service requirement for students.

The Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, a local Jewish school, has partnered with Dorot for 10 years. Small groups of Schechter fifth-graders visit Dorot seniors monthly in their homes to talk about school-related topics. When students study immigration, they ask seniors about their immigration experiences.

Doris Zaslow, 96, who first attended Dorot discussion groups and exercise classes 15 years ago, is a participant. She now stays at home but enjoys the visits with students, some of whom have become friends.

"I am very old, but I still very involved," Zaslow said. "Dorot is not only for the young people. Dorot draws the older people into the excitement of the next generation. That's very important."

Diane Oshin, a Dorot volunteer and board member, feels much the same way. She first volunteered in 1989 after the death of her paternal grandmother, Sadie Oshin.

"When I lost her, it left a very big void in my life," she said.

Dorot's many programs made it possible for Oshin to keep volunteering even as her life changed, with marriage and children. Over the years, she took her toddler sons to visit seniors and continued to do so as they grew up and her work responsibilities increased. Now that her sons are in college, the whole family volunteers at the annual Thanksgiving dinner.

Dorot has grown considerably since its founding. With a $7 million budget and a staff of 56, the organization serves between 2,500 and 3,000 seniors a year and engages nearly 7,500 volunteers, including those who volunteer for one-time events.

Dorot, though, is not content simply to ride on its success. In 2010, the organization went through a strategic planning process.

"It was a very deliberate process for the staff and the board," Meridy said. "Organizations, regardless of how old, need to do a periodic reassessment of where they are, what they're doing and where they're going."

For the first time, they created a vision statement, refined the mission statement, which had been "a kind of laundry list of the programs we provided," and identified and articulated the organization's core values.

The process has helped the growing organization stay focused, Meridy said. As a constant reminder, he keeps the new mission statement taped to the wall next to his desk. Clear and concise, it reads in part: "Dorot alleviates social isolation among the elderly and provides services to help them live independently as valued members of the community."

Commitment to core values

Of Dorot's six organizational values, the first is "Jewish communal responsibility."

Through chess and other activities, Dorot creates friendships across the generations.
Through chess and other activities, Dorot creates
friendships across the generations.

Jewish principles drive Dorot's work, Meridy said. The commandment to honor one's father and mother and Psalm 71's admonition to "forget me not when I grow old" inspire their mission. The Jewish tenet of tikkun olam, repairing the world, motivates their efforts.

Those values and principles are evident in Dorot Cooks! -- a program that brings together third- to fifth-graders and older adults to cook and discuss Jewish food. The class is offered in partnership with the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.

In one class, students learned to make cholent, a stew. Traditionally, observant Jews place the stew in the oven on Friday before sundown, when the Sabbath begins, leave it overnight and serve it for lunch after synagogue on Saturday.

"A lot of the children had never heard of it, and all of the seniors had," said Nancy Wolfson-Moche, who teaches the class.

One elderly man told the children about growing up in Poland, in a Jewish village where families shared a communal oven. Every Friday, the women put their cholent in the oven, but after synagogue, it was always a challenge to tell the stews apart, because the pots all looked the same.

The children were amazed.

"How different from our world is that?" Wolfson-Moche said. "Not only do we all have kitchens and ovens, but how many different pots do we have? That was something so unexpected that this man brought to the table."

That's what can happen when people meet across generations, Oshin said. Face to face, connections are formed.

"It sounds hokey, but there's something about the in-person experience of visiting someone, of making a difference," she said. "It's so personal, so immediate, so real."

Questions to consider:

  • Dorot sees itself as creating partnerships between seniors, volunteers and support services. How does your institution cultivate partnerships that extend and fulfill its mission?
  • How does your church or organization nurture intergenerational community?
  • Even with its success, Dorot continues to be strategic about its future. How are you planning for future success in your own institution?
  • What are the values and principles at the core of your institution’s work? What is their source? How are they enacted and embodied?