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Building for Longer Lives at Jewish Homes for the Aging

June 23, 1985|RUTH RYON | Times Staff Writer

Sheldon J. Blumenthal likes to repeat what he terms "a traditional Jewish greeting" that goes: "May you live to be 120."

Hardly anybody lives that long, but Blumenthal, executive director of Jewish Homes for the Aging of Greater Los Angeles in Reseda, is seeing more and more people getting close to it.

"And why not?" he asks. "That's what Moses did, and he could see and hear and have sex. He was very healthy."

What concerns Blumenthal though is the frail elderly and those who cannot support themselves and need special services like a kosher kitchen and a synagogue.

"As an institution, we're 75 years old," he noted, "and we've never changed our mission to provide shelter and care for poor, old Jewish people in Los Angeles."

Like other elderly people, this group is also growing, and Blumenthal's 15-acre facility, known as Grancell Village and situated on two sites within 1 1/2 miles of each other, is feeling the squeeze.

That is why the Jewish Homes organization launched a $10-million capital facilities campaign to fund a three-story, 105-bed skilled-nursing building, the first new residence structure on the campus in 20 years.

A ground-breaking ceremony will be held today for the building, which represents the first phase of a $30-million master-planned program for three skilled-nursing buildings to be completed before the end of the decade. The first structure is due to be completed in September, 1986.

"We plan to have a total of 300 new beds," Blumenthal said. "They're so desperately needed."

Financier and philanthropist Mark Taper realized that when he visited the facility and learned that the waiting period for admission is usually two years. He learned that about 2,000 people a year call the home to ask if they might be considered for admission. He learned that of these 2,000, 80 to 100 names are added annually to the waiting list. The present waiting list includes the names of 200 people.

The facility has about 800 residents, whose average age is 88. "The last time I looked, we had 12 people over the age of 100," Blumenthal observed. "One resident over 100 just died, and she was with us for 26 years."

Most of the residents were born in Europe. "They are the last of the eastern European immigrants who came over here between 1900 and 1915," he said. "We're just beginning to see some residents who were born in America."

The prevailing language is Yiddish, because it is the one language that all of the residents have spoken for years.

Deciding who qualifies for admission and who doesn't can be difficult, he admitted, but it comes down to need. "We accept that what we do is the end of the line, and we want our residents to live in as much dignity as possible, but we don't want people to live here who don't need to," Blumenthal said.

Taper was "extremely impressed with the extensive screening pattern that the home's admission committee follows," a spokeswoman for the financier said.

He was so impressed with the facility, in fact, that he gave what Blumenthal termed "a very substantial donation" toward constructing the new skilled-nursing building. The donation was significant enough that the new structure will be called the Mark Taper Building.

"The donation will cover the cost of architecture and allowed us to begin our fund-raising campaign, because the first gift is always the hard one, and to get a name like Mr. Taper's really helps," Blumenthal explained.

So far, he estimated, $6 million has been raised. "It will cost $5.2 million for construction, $6.75 million with equipment and consulting, and the rest of the $10 million will be used to operate it."

Widom/Wein & Partners of Los Angeles designed the 44,000-square-foot building, which will have a centralized nurses' station for easy visibility down two corridors.

As Chester A. Widom, a partner in the architectural firm, described it:

"We've gone to an L-shaped building with a nurses' station looking down both corridors. This way the nurses can see and help. Also, the nurses' station becomes a focal point where everybody congregates, where the patients 'hang around."'

Blumenthal says that he never liked patients "hanging around" a nurses' station. He tried to discourage it, but nothing worked. "So we designed this nurses' station for 'hanging around,"' he conceded.

After all, Widom noted, "this is the patients' whole world. They rarely go out. Their rooms are their homes. The corridor is their street. The nurses' station is the social gathering place on the street."

Widom's firm also designed the rooms so each of the two patients sharing it can have a window. "Then there will be no territorial fight," he said.

The way the existing rooms work is like a landlord/tenant relationship, Blumenthal explained. "The one who has been there the longest gets the window, and he or she is the landlord while the other patient in the room is the tenant. We're eliminating that conflict in this building."

Widom also likes to think of the atmosphere in the new building as more like a hotel than an institution. His firm tried to achieve this feeling with indirect, soft lighting and wall graphics.

It is nicer to live in a hotel than a hospital, whether you're 20 or 120.

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