Caring for Holocaust Survivors in the Age of COVID-19

Jun 25, 2020 by Briana Hilfer

The New York Times got directly to the heart of the matter. “Just What Older People Didn't Need: More Isolation,” read a headline on April 13th, 2020 (Span, Paula. The New York Times.). Now in forced isolation, older adults have no choice but to adjust to a “new normal,” many without the tools to which younger people have access. For Holocaust Survivors in particular, their childhood traumas are exacerbated by COVID-19. Many survivors already suffer from post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and other mental health complications.
In the past three months, survivors have been relying on mental health and social service providers more than ever. Many survivors now need additional help to support their physical, emotional, and financial needs. UJA-Federation of New York, along with the agencies we fund, have pivoted quickly to provide survivors access to at-home programming and other resources.
\Crucial among these resources, and core to UJA’s mission, is the distribution of food and emergency cash assistance to Holocaust Survivors. As social service agencies closed, survivors who relied on communal meals or food pantries were left without these lifelines. UJA and our partner agencies quickly mobilized to provide groceries and prepared meals to survivors, making certain survivors had food without having to leave their homes. Our funding ensures weekly food deliveries to survivors across NY’s five boroughs, Westchester, and Long Island. Cash assistance has been offered to survivors for costs such as rent, emergency doctor appointments, and personal protective equipment (PPE).
Additionally, we want to help prevent survivors from contracting COVID-19. We funded safe transportation for home health aides, along with PPE. We are also providing alternative safety measures, such as Telephone Emergency Response System units, for survivors who are still uncomfortable with aides coming into their homes. These units are wearable emergency response devices that connect survivors directly to first responders in the cases of tremors, falls, chest pains, or other issues.
While we know the first step to keeping survivors safe is by addressing their physiological needs, we cannot ignore their mental health needs. Survivors often feel trapped, cut off from their social supports, and many of them are experiencing the sudden loss of family and friends. In an effort to mitigate loneliness and social isolation, UJA now offers a plethora of virtual mental health and socialization programs for survivors, such as support groups, private concerts, lunches and Shabbat dinners, classes and lectures, and other at-home opportunities. Because these programs primarily take place online, we have also been supplementing funding for tablets and other devices to ensure that survivors can meaningfully participate.
Through the Jewish Federations of North America’s Center for Advancing Holocaust Survivor Care’s (JFNA) Critical Supports program, UJA-Federation will fund 8 programs in 2021 that focus on care for survivors through the lens of the COVID-19 crisis. We ensured that the funded programs are able to run remotely, and focused on providing fundamental services to survivors that might be more difficult for them to access during COVID. For example, we are funding food delivery (JCC Rockaway Peninsula), a care navigation program in a hospital (The Marion and Aaron Gural JCC),pastoral care and other mental health services (Selfhelp Community Services ), and virtual socialization opportunities (Concerts in Motion). The funding from JFNA will enable agencies to address survivor trauma while addressing vital needs.
The New York Times article quotes Dr. Dan Blazer, a psychiatrist at Duke University’s School of Medicine, “‘We’ll find ways to adapt to [COVID-19], but my hope for older people is that we don’t forget them.”’ UJA and its subgrantees will adapt to the pandemic, as Dr. Blazer notes, while helping survivors adapt as well. As always, our aim remains to provide survivors with the best support, the warmth of community, and the compassionate care they need to live in dignity. Now more so than ever, survivors cannot be forgotten.
Briana Hilfer, LMSW manages the Aging Grants Portfolio at UJA-Federation of New York. She is responsible for overseeing and evaluating grants in the areas of Holocaust survivors, Alzheimer’s and Dementia, end of life care, mental health and aging, and social isolation. Briana strives to fund and develop programs that provide older adults with socialization opportunities, medical and mental health support, and direct services.
Briana is a licensed social worker with a master's in social work from Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts from Emory University.