by Wendy Schneider
Imagine a self-contained village, complete with grocery stores, restaurants and a movie theatre, its low-rise apartments built around a beautiful courtyard garden, where the sounds of flowing water and chirping birds soothe the spirits of all who sit there. Imagine that this village is home to people living with varying stages of Alzheimer's disease. Such places exist in the world, the most famous being the village of Hogewey, just outside of Amsterdam, where 150+ residents are cared for by almost double that number of support staff, or as the residents think of them, fellow villagers. The current stewards of Shalom Village have been doing a lot of imagining lately, having been told by the provincial government that they have 10 years in which to decide and put in place a plan that will see the original building brought up to new government standards governing the province’s long-term care facilities.
The mandate, while daunting, is also an exciting opportunity for stakeholders to create something of tremendous value for both the Jewish community and the city itself, and Shalom Village is more than up to the challenge, according to Dr. Larry Levin and Yael Arnold.
It’s Friday night at Shalom Village. In a corner of the room, Shabbat candles have been placed on a table, awaiting your attention. You sit down at a table already occupied by a handful of residents and are served a steaming bowl of matzah ball soup, a piece of challah and a chicken dinner. That your tablemates may not be Jewish is beside the point. The meal is reminiscent of a lifetime of Jewish customs, observed or not, and you feel a sense of belonging.
This is the new reality at Shalom Village, where non-Jewish residents represent 30 per cent of its apartment population and up to 70 per cent of those in long-term care beds. The shift in demographics has been gradual, according to past chair Larry Levin, and one that’s come about as a result of seniors living healthier and longer lives and the desire to move closer to their children and grandchildren as they age, which often means moving out of the area.
Last summer, the newly-appointed Associate Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, Dipika Damerla, paid a visit to Shalom Village seeking to learn how culturally-identified nursing homes incorporated their traditions into day to day operations.
“She noticed the mezuzahs on every door, she noticed how the kosher kitchen functions, the rabbi walking around, being set out for the Sabbath,” recalled Arnold. At the end of the tour, the minister attended a focus group attended by a representative group of volunteers, residents and staff. When the minister asked the volunteers how they felt about Shalom’s changing demographics, “They told her they feel very much at home here, that Shalom is continuing and respecting their traditions.” When she asked a non-Jewish resident how it felt to be living in a Jewish environment, his response, ironic that it may seem, was that he, too, felt very much at home.
“He told her how he attends the Rabbi’s lectures and finds them very stimulating. He enjoys taking part in the traditions around him, and that he feels very much included and accepted for who he is,” said Arnold. “He grew up a devoted Anglican,” said Arnold, “and for him at Shalom is in an environment that respects who he is, where he feels he belongs, that he happily and thankfully calls home. When you speak to the residents, there is never a sense that anybody feels that they’re excluded or that they don’t belong – it’s rather quite the contrary. No matter what their background is. ”
Demographics at Shalom Village being as they are, is it reasonable to expect that Jewish philanthropy bear the entire burden of funding its redevelopment, or should partnerships with groups outside the Jewish community be cultivated? Is this an opportunity to develop the site into a campus environment, with Shalom Village sharing space with other Jewish communal organizations, or should Shalom position itself as a regional centre of excellence that can offer McMaster University medical and nursing students on-the-ground training in a particular area such as Alzheimer’s or palliative care? Charged with the task of exploring these and other options is a dedicated board of directors composed of individuals from both the health care field and business, whose diverse expertise provides “incredible learning opportunities for all of us,” said Arnold. A special committee of the board has been appointed to examine “all the relevant data and opportunities,” said Levin, adding that while there have been “general” talks with the Federation and JCC, “trying to decide what is it that Shalom needs and how it see its future is our first priority.”
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the current exploration is the seriousness with which the board is researching the kind of innovative models that have transformed geriatric care in Scandinavian countries. Creating a Shalom Village that is truly a village would surely put this community and Hamilton in general on the world stage of long-term care facilities. “Why shouldn’t we do that here,” asked Arnold. “Why not in Hamilton?”
While discussions are still very much in the preliminary stages – after all, the new design standards are not mandated until the year 2025, one thing is clear: The current site is ideally suited for even the boldest of redevelopment plans.
“Our foremothers and forefathers were already forward thinkers. We’re not in this huge tall hospital-like industrial building … The living spaces are very homey … so even if we were to keep that same environmental feel and just update it , we’d still be ahead of the game,” said Arnold. “but if we wanted to switch the model, we have the room to do it.”
For years, Shalom Village has been regarded as the jewel in the crown of Hamilton’s Jewish communal scene. A place where Jewish residents of any affiliation can feel a sense of belonging, where Jewish volunteers can give back to their community, where Jewish philanthropy has helped it attain the highest levels of excellence, and whose mission and operations have always been guided by the fifth commandment to honour one’s mother and father. Will any future redevelopment affect these priorities?
“I really see Jewish life as the breath and the soul of Shalom Village,” said Arnold, “and what’s mandated to us by the government is the body that it lives in. Our CEO Jeanette O’Leary, the Staff, the Board of Directors, and the volunteers all contribute to infusing it with yiddishkeit for the residents. This is what makes Shalom a gem in our community.”
As for whether the community will balk at supporting an institution that doesn’t necessarily have a Jewish majority, hasn’t Jewish philanthropy been at the forefront of charitable giving to hospitals, institutions of higher learning and the arts for generations?
“It should be important to all of us to support Shalom even though the percentages might not be what you’d expect,” he said, “because it’s there and ready for you if you or your loved one needs it.”
Change may bring uncertainty, but the exemplary leadership demonstrated by Levin and Arnold, neither of whom are native-born Hamiltonians, in embracing the challenge of re-visioning one of our community’s most venerable institutions, is nothing if not reassuring. By way of explanation for her taking on such an important role at a relatively young age, Arnold, a healthcare administrator by profession, allowed that she had a very close relationship with her grandparents.
“Unfortunately, long-term care often gets over- looked in terms of increased government funding or services. To my mind, this segment of our population has given us so much that we need to honour and continue the legacy they created. I see being connected to older adults in a volunteer capacity as a privilege. When I am at Shalom Village, I have a true sense that everyone living there is a blessing to our community, because we have a lot to learn from his or her life’s experience. What a gift it is to be able to live older, in an environment that prioritizes individual healthy living needs, driven by leaders and caretakers that truly grasp the mission of honouring thy fathers and thy mothers. It’s important for me to give in some small way to Shalom Village, because all of these people have so much to give to us.”