Posted by Lili Ibara, Geriatric Care Manager
As a geriatric care manager for JF&CS Your Elder Experts I have had the chance to get to know several remarkable Holocaust survivors. JF&CS Schechter Holocaust Services and Your Elder Experts often collaborate to provide oversight and management of care needs, logistical and financial support, and a sense of connection for some of the frailest of the aging survivors.
Sonya was a Holocaust survivor, who was first sent to a death camp with her family as a teenager, then spent the duration of the war in labor camps in Germany, making her way across Europe and eventually to the United States where she married, worked, and had children. Her escape was a miracle, a triumph for Sonya and her courageous protectors in the face of mass genocide. It was also, I imagine, the beginning of that omnipotent and omnipresent sense of loss that seemed to dog all of her later decisions and relationships.
Sonya was often depressed, to the point of wanting desperately to die, and she was usually in severe pain, but she also had an independent streak that kept her living alone at home far beyond when most people would have packed up for an easier environment. Most remarkable in light of the trauma that had shattered her life, Sonya was still able to form new caring relationships. She was delighted for me when I told her I was pregnant, peppering me with questions before offering some advice: “don’t drink no alcohol now.” She was a frugal yet generous person who was careful with her money but forever trying to treat us to lunch. She was appalled that I paid for daycare and was sorry that she couldn’t lift the baby or she’d have done it for free.
Sonya’s ability to relate constantly amazed me. She once told me that her primary care manager was “just like a mother” to her. It made me smile to think of youthful, easygoing Susan Bernat as a mother figure to this frail 80-year-old, but it was also an amazing testament to the fact that JF&CS could provide Sonya a real antidote for her loss. It was a remarkable privilege to watch Sonya gradually come to trust Susan and the rest of us. She even forged a friendship with a very dedicated JF&CS home health aide who helped her bathe and shower twice a week.
It was easy for me to forget Sonya’s history in the humdrum of helping with pharmacy pick-ups and cardiology visits, but it would pop back up sometimes, catching me off guard and filling me with awe. I remember once driving her down Route 9 through rush hour traffic, worrying about how I was going to get Sonya home and me to daycare on time, when she turned to me and said, “treasure your mother - mine, she died at Auschwitz.” I nodded, not knowing what to say. That evening I did call my mom, just to chat.
When Sonya died, three of her care managers attended her funeral. During the service I noticed that her home health aide was there too and I felt so proud to have been part of her team, proud of us for being able to help and proud that she let us.
Lili Ibara is a geriatric care manager with JF&CS Your Elder Experts. Lili began her advocacy work in the legal world, working at several legal aid organizations including the ACLU and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, and also as a federal appellate law clerk. She enjoys using her advocacy background to help clients successfully navigate through bureaucracies.