Keeping Her Eyes On Elderly


When Vivian Fenster Ehrlich left a career in publishing to become executive director of the nonprofit Dorot, 21 years ago, it had a budget of $700,000 and a staff of 24 crammed into two floors of a decrepit brownstone on West 91st Street.
Now, as she prepares to become director emerita and start a venture she isn’t ready to publicly discuss, Ehrlich is running an organization with 10 times the budget and nearly three times as many staff, working out of its own 10,000-square-foot townhouse a few blocks south.

Yet in important respects, it is still the same organization it was in 1976, when Dorot [“Generations”] was founded by Columbia University graduate students and alumni worried about the well-being of homebound elderly.

The population of Americans 65 and older will double in the next five decades, to 75 million. The Jewish community is aging even faster. According to demographer Ira Sheskin, 12 percent of all Americans were 65 and older in the year 2000, while 16 percent of American Jews were.

Dorot serves these seniors in Manhattan and Brooklyn, as well as in a handful of other communities where Dorot ( runs telephone-based programs — and also serves caregivers of the homebound.

“When I came everything was done on a shoestring, and it’s not anymore,” Ehrlich says. From its West 85th Street home, Dorot now serves some 10,000 seniors and caregivers a year through 37 different programs.

“As the aging population is exploding we’ve been incredibly lucky we’ve been able to grow with that need,” says Ehrlich.
But as people live longer, their needs grow more complex. While “our primary mission is to mobilize volunteers to serve the community, we’re needing to do more case management,” which requires more intensive professional involvement.

Programs include Meals on Wheels, which provides weekly food to 260 seniors, and a Friendly Visitors program in which 270 volunteers visit as many seniors every week. Volunteers remain in those relationships for more than three years, on average, Dorot officials say.

Dorot may be best known for its holiday package delivery program, which attracts thousands of volunteers before Jewish holidays and Thanksgiving, providing food and much needed social contact to elders.

“Most of the people need the visit at least as much as the food,” Ehrlich says.
There’s also a homelessness prevention program that provides housing to 14 seniors at a time, which has transitioned 1,500 people into permanent places to live.
Another core Dorot program is University Without Walls, which enables 700 homebound people throughout the city to take weekly teleconference classes on current events, Jewish topics, literature and art. (Disclosure: This reporter’s blind grandmother participated. After she died, this reporter taught a few classes).

The Caregivers Connection offers 15 different teleconference courses dealing with pragmatic issues, like finances and home care, to those caring for elderly parents or spouses. To Your Health is for people with cancer, chronic pain and other ongoing medical problems. One-third of the participants are blind.

There are more programs — one escorting Manhattan seniors to medical appointments, another pairing volunteers and seniors to attend Lincoln Center events with donated tickets.

Dorot’s heart and soul — in addition to its 61 staff members — is its 7,000 active volunteers.

“We have an incredible ability to leverage volunteers,” Ehrlich says. “They get a big bang for their emotional investment.”

About half are under 18, Ehrlich says. Dorot has relationships with 156 schools through which students volunteer in intergenerational digital photography and painting classes, for example, or go to elders’ homes to teach them how to use computers.
Ehrlich says she hopes it leads some to want to continue this work. “There is such a shortage in the geriatric workforce. Within the next five years 50 percent of the people in the geriatric workforce are going to retire and nobody’s getting into this field,” says Ehrlich. “It’s a big crisis. I hope we can inspire people to understand the great emotional plusses you get.”

There are always fundraising worries.
Over half of Dorot’s financing comes from 30,000 individual donors. While the economic downturn hasn’t yet directly impacted Dorot, the $96,000 a year that Dorot gets from the New York City Department for the Aging is currently at risk, and “nobody knows what will play out in the economy,” Ehrlich says.

But “we weathered a couple of very difficult times, and I think Dorot is in a really good place.”
Dorot is unlike any other organization she has encountered, Ehrlich says. “There is always a smile at the door, it’s very unbureaucratic. It’s very nurturing. It’s a very special place.”