By David Zenlea
It was a cold, rain-soaked Monday evening when I visited The Meer senior independent living apartments on the JCC Campus, yet the person I’m here to see, Tracey Proghovnick Edelstein, exuded sunny warmth, greeting me at the door and pausing to kibbitz with residents and pet a dog. In her office—after insisting on giving me a gift bag—she gave me the bad news: we’re aging.
“If you’re lucky, you’re going to get old,” she said.
Most of us try to avoid talking (or even thinking) about our later years. Proghovnick Edelstein has done the opposite nearly every day for twenty-five years at Jewish Senior Life. Since joining JSL in 1998 as a social worker, she has managed various aspects of intake at JSL facilities and has also worked closely with other local Jewish organizations, such as Jewish Family Service, to ensure seniors’ needs are met. (For those of you reading who, like me, get your “Js” confused, JSL handles most senior housing in the area, whereas JFS takes the lead on care for seniors who are still in their own homes. Both receive a portion of their funding from Federation.) As the current Director of Residential Marketing and Community Relations, she communicates what JSL has to offer.
The throughline is a passion for her work and empathy for those she serves.
“Tracey has the ability to build relationships with people, even in the most challenging situations,” said Barbra Giles, who helped recruit Proghovnick Edelstein to JSL and still works for the organization as Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives.
As Proghovnick Edelstein’s role has evolved, so has the community and its needs. The overall population of Jewish seniors in Detroit is growing, per the most recent community survey, as the historically large baby boomer generation enters retirement. Seniors are now living longer and increasingly aging in home, which means that, on the flip side, they often encounter JSL when they are older and frailer.
And then there are the more acute challenges, such as when the COVID pandemic forced JSL to stop accepting new residents. In that difficult time, when there was no need for residential marketing, she found herself at a reception desk, screening residents and permitted visitors.
“She never, ever considers herself above doing any job that needs to get done,” said Giles.
For her decades of dedication to Detroit Jewish seniors, Proghovnick Edelstein is being awarded the Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Award, the Federation’s highest honor for a Jewish communal professional.
I sat down with Proghovnick Edelstein to learn how she discovered—and maintains—her zeal for helping older adults, as well as how we can all better our chances of aging in comfort and dignity.
“It’s very possible that you will need some type of support in your life, and prior to that, you’re most likely going to be some type of caregiver. We want people to know, ‘You can do it.’”
“An affinity for the older adult population”
My grandmother was quite young when she became ill, so I grew up going to the Farmington nursing home every weekend and dancing for the residents. That was normal to me. I just had an affinity for the older adult population.
When I look back, my grandmother wasn’t even what we consider an older adult today—she passed away when she was only 72. (And I always say she didn’t have gray hair!) So it’s a different profile today of what an older adult is to many people. But when you’re not well, you’re not well at any age.
“This could be a really good thing”
I was working in a nursing home in Detroit. I ran into Barbra Giles at a Young Adult Division event [a forerunner of NEXTGEN Detroit]. I happened to have a Jewish resident at an assisted living facility in Detroit—her name was Esther—and she wanted to be with other Jewish people. So I said, “Barbra, do you have any openings? And she thought I meant for a job! She said I’m actually hiring. And I thought, “This could be really a good thing.”
“It’s hard to move at any age”
I started off at the Fleischman residence. I helped when a resident was coming to move in with us—I went with our nurse and did the assessment. We determined how we would care for them, and I helped them and their family through the whole process of moving in.
It’s hard to move at any age. It’s a lot when you’re not feeling well, or maybe there are some cognitive impairments. There are also family relationship dynamics—we now see that role reversal of the adult child becoming the caregiver. There’s just a lot to it.
The Jewish community recognized that a social worker was really relevant for that position. If you look at other senior communities in Michigan in particular, you won’t see many social workers. I think that speaks a lot about how we take care of people, and take you seriously.
“I always think of myself on the other end of the phone.”
Jewish Home and Aging Services merged in 2009 with Jewish Apartments and Services. We had what we called One Number—a community-wide number for older adult services—in partnership with Jewish Family Service, the JCC, and Gesher Human Services. The phone rang at my desk, and I would help get it to the right agency, the right person. [One Number was a predecessor to Jhelp].
I always think of myself on the other end of that phone…when you’re vulnerable, or just something’s not right. The person who answers the phone—how they react, how they treat you, how their voice sounds—that’s going to help you de-escalate and get the conversation started. You’re also talking to a stranger about very private things in many cases.
“We usually find a solution.”
I [currently am] Director of Residential Marketing and Community Relations, working with all the communities at Jewish Senior Life.
I still often am the first touch when someone calls or inquires about services. I talk through their situation, and we narrow it down. Are they interested in Oak Park, West Bloomfield, or both? Affordable housing, independent living, assisted living, memory care, day program? We have so many things to offer, and with all of those things, we usually find a solution.
I just think of myself moving—and I don’t have other challenges that people coming here might have—and I remember saying when I moved to my home, “I’m never moving again.” Once someone lives with us, we’ve already assessed their medical needs or their cognitive challenges, or their family dynamics. What is going on [and what] can we do to help that person live with dignity, respect, socialization, health, wellness, and nutrition? From day one, we’re off and running,
“We’re doing Reels now”
We find that word of mouth is still our most popular way of people finding us. We’ll hear someone say, “I think grandma lived here.” And when you’re here for 25 years, you can say, “I knew your grandma.” That connection is very special.
It’s a lot of in-person marketing. Now that a lot of events are back, I’m usually at a table so people can come by, and I can talk about Jewish Senior Life.
Our social media has just taken off—we’re on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and LinkedIn, and we’re doing Reels now. And it’s great people are responding. We’re able to look at our analytics and see that people of all different age groups are engaging. That part is really fascinating.
“Don’t wait until there’s a crisis”
The trend we’re seeing in the older population is that people are waiting longer to consider making a move. We’re seeing people, especially in assisted living, having a higher level of care needs. Our average ages are increasing, and with age comes more things to address. People are living longer and are living healthier longer. They sometimes wait to make decisions like this until they feel it’s right for them. Sometimes, if there’s a medical emergency or a significant change, their children help them make that decision.
That’s one of the ways we try to educate people—we’re having an event on April 20th called Retirement, Real Estate, and Right Sizing. We try to say to people, ‘Don’t wait until there’s a crisis.’ You want to have control over your decisions about what you do.
“The next generation of wants”
There is a lot of competition in the senior housing world, much more than when I started. We’ve been around since 1907, and we feel that we provide the best services. There are some beautiful new builds that catch somebody’s eye. We want to stay relevant. We’re doing a lot of updating—Hechtman just redid all of their apartments, and now their dining room is being redone. Fleischman just started redoing all of the apartments. We’re listening. We know people want larger spaces. The next generation of wants is what we’re trying to meet.
“We have to continue”
We have a liaison from the NEXTGen board on our board. Because when you don’t know it, or you’ve never lived it or seen it, or maybe your grandparents are only in their 60s, it’s a whole new world to learn. And so, one of our goals, as we move forward, is to make sure we’re educating and bringing in the next generation of younger adults. Because, as I was saying, if you’re lucky, you’re going to get old. Everyone’s going to do it one way or another.
Our residents generally love intergenerational programming. We have the Frankel [Jewish Academy] kids, we have the Hillel kids. We work with the special needs department at the JCC—they have camps for kids up to 26–and they actually have an apartment here at The Meer where they teach life skills.
“This is my community”
It’s definitely changing. But there’s still a really nice, large community. My mom is a volunteer here, and she was chatting with some ladies one day, and they realized they all went to the same high school. So one of them went to their apartment, got their yearbook, and they found each other—70 years later.
This is my community. I’ve grown up here. I’ve heard the stories from my family. And then I learned them from our residents here. It’s really special to connect with people. And we have a lot of people that move out of town during retirement, and then they move back to Detroit because this is where they have family. A lot of them have been gone for 20 to 30 years, but they come back, and it’s just like the old days—they see their friend they used to go roller skating with or to the deli for a milkshake with. Many generations of Detroiters live with us, and we get to learn the history of our community through them.
“Nothing is too small to celebrate”
My husband is also a lifelong Detroiter, and we have a 14-year-old son. We love baseball and we love dogs. We love being with family. To me, there’s nothing too small to celebrate. I love to have people over to celebrate birthdays and holidays and anything. I do drive my husband a little crazy with all the get-togethers, but they’re not fancy. It’s about being together, having a meal, sitting and laughing—enjoying each other’s company.
I think that does come from my work, because you hear people say, “Oh, life is so short,” but I see it every day.