WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (JTA) — The average Joe doesn´t know what a NORC is, but Jewish communal leaders are aiming to change that. On Tuesday, 2000 representatives of communities around the country lobbied on Capitol Hill, trying to educate their lawmakers about the need for services to naturally occurring retirement communities, or NORCs. NORCs are residential housing developments where people moved decades ago, raised families and aged, and where they want to continue living independently. The issue has become a priority agenda item for the public policy arm of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of the federation system. Allowing people to "age in place" is much cheaper than the institutionalization involved with nursing homes or assisted living facilities, UJC officials say. Perhaps because many of the 30- and 40-somethings have aging parents and grandparents, the task for educating Congress about the issue fell to UJC´s young leadership conference participants, who were gathered here this week for a three-day convention. The goal of the lobbying effort was to lay the groundwork for creating legislation and ultimately some form of national programming, UJC officials said. The number of Jewish elderly is expected to soar over the coming decade, and UJC wants leaders at the national and local levels to look beyond traditional methods of caring for the elderly to develop new plans and policies. Many communities have been preparing to increase services to the elderly, but as baby boomers age, the need is becoming more urgent, say experts in the field. The problem is especially acute in the Jewish community. An estimated 20 percent of American Jewry is 65 or older, a significantly higher proportion than among the general population, where the figure is around 13 percent. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showed that 920,000 Jewish Americans are at least 65 years of age. There are an estimated 10 million seniors living in NORCs, and the vast majority want to remain living in their own homes, according to UJC officials. Providing help to seniors could mean a lot of different things depending on the community. For example, a large apartment complex could include space for health care and legal services. In a more suburban area, such services could mean a shuttle bus for seniors to get to special programs. For a number of lawmakers — or their aides — it was the first time they were hearing about the idea. Indeed, for some conference participants, it was also their introduction to the issue. On the bus ride to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, some people were poring over their information sheets and said they felt like they were cramming for a test. In Florida, where the number of Jewish elderly is particularly high, one might expect people to be more knowledgeable about the subject. But the Jewish community, the general community and lawmakers are not aware of NORCs, said Marisa Weinstock of Miami. The young leaders are interested in the subject and happy to inform others, Weinstock said. "We have parents and grandparents," she said. "And one day we´ll be in that position, too." Will Springer of Miami said Florida should be more proactive about getting funding for NORCS, but added all states should be interested in the concept. After meeting with their individual members of Congress, many participants agreed that the lawmakers were very receptive to the idea of helping NORCs. While there is no legislation about NORCs right now, UJC is working with a senator on developing a bill, according to Diana Aviv, UJC´s vice president of public policy. She did not want to name the senator. At the end of last year, $3.68 million in federal funds were designated for Jewish agencies in Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis to serve the elderly living in NORCs. This was seen as a model program, which UJC hopes to expand upon. At this point the group is open to all kinds of options, whether it be federal funding for more model programs or incentives for states to allocate funding, Aviv said. The biggest challenge right now is educating people, Aviv said, but it seems like one thing is working in UJC´s favor. When lawmakers hear about the idea of focusing on this sector of the elderly population, "they love it immediately," she said. When UJC´s young leaders lobbied here two years ago, they focused on another aging issue that was not on everyone´s radar screen. In 2000 they promoted what was known as Return to Home legislation, which helps ensure that elderly who are enrolled in a managed health care program can return to their health care home community after hospitalization. Later that year the legislation passed. Other issues the UJC leaders lobbied on this week as their biennial conference drew to a close were continued support for U.S. aid to Israel; ending trade restrictions to Russia, assuming assurances of religious freedom; and increasing funding for the social services block grant that goes to states, which can use the money for social service programs of their choosing.
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