Community upbeat about Covenant plans

Covenant House residents look on during a how-to cooking program on Dec. 22 from Hema Patel, owner and chef of Haveli Indian Restaurant on Page Boulevard. Covenant House has announced plans that would replace the buildings of Covenant House/CHAI Apartments over the next few years. Photo: Sara Levin 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The recent announcement to begin replacing the buildings of Covenant House/CHAI Apartments over the next few years is drawing generally positive feedback from the local Jewish community, including residents who live there.

Lori Goldberg, manager of senior services and adults with special needs at Jewish Family and Children’s Service, thinks the move is a good one. Conversations she has had with Covenant’s executive director Joan Denison have left Goldberg feeling encouraged.

“Joan has shared with us her vision and in many ways, I think it is a dream come true for the St. Louis Jewish older community,” she said. “The idea of having not only a place for older adults to live comfortably which they can afford but just the idea of having so many services under one roof is absolutely amazing.”

Goldberg noted that facilities must be designed to meet the needs of a growing senior population that often wishes to live at home rather than at an assisted living facility. That equation includes increased programming.

“Years ago, I think we thought all older adults needed was bingo and some meals,” she said. “I think older adults now, as baby boomers age, are demanding more. They are looking for things that challenge them and keep them more socially engaged.”

Not only are seniors living longer but they are also retiring earlier in some instances — not always by choice in a down economy. That’s why she feels Covenant serves an important role in keeping housing within the budget of its residents.

“We’re seeing some younger older adults who are still at an age where they are ineligible for Social Security but they’ve been laid off or retired so it’s really been difficult for them to find affordable housing,” Goldberg said. “It’s going to really fill an unmet need.”

With 280,000 baby boomers countywide and another 150,000 over the age of 65, elderly housing is an issue front-and-center for local government as well.

“Everything points in the direction of the need for a variety of kinds of senior housing,” said Lori Fiegel, comprehensive planning manager for St. Louis County. 

“Just the sheer volume of what’s coming is pretty significant. St. Louis County has about a million people. Just under 45 percent of our population is over the age of 45.”

Fiegel said statistics show that anywhere from 82-94 percent of seniors prefer to age at home. Unfortunately, that’s not always a choice.

“Not everyone is going to be able to stay in their homes as long as they would like,” she said. “There are going to have to be more options available.”

Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation, hopes the Covenant plan will help keep that option for seniors for decades to come. 

“The state of the building is such that something needs to be done,” he said. “The Federation is here to provide oversight and accountability for our donor dollars that we allocate to them as an agency. We look forward to collaborating in appropriate ways to meet the needs of our seniors.”

Karen Berry Elbert, manager of St. Louis’s Federation-sponsored Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC), agrees.

“I think that it’s a wonderful opportunity to provide new, affordable housing for seniors in our community,” she said. “We sorely need it.”

She said a lot of Covenant residents are NORC members and future partnerships between the two are a possibility though nothing has been decided at this point.

 “We have to see how the project takes hold and we can plan accordingly,” Elbert said. “We’re certainly in favor of a common space for our local older adults to have programming, etc.”

In an email statement, the Gladys and Henry Crown Center for Senior Living, an independent living facility just east of I-170 and Delmar, also praised the move.

“There is no doubt that the numbers and needs of senior adults in the St. Louis area will continue to grow in the coming years,” said Jeffrey Cohen, president of the institution, which also has Jewish roots (as the former NCJW Delcrest Apartments). “We’re pleased that the Jewish community recognizes this reality, and is renewing its commitment to meet this challenge.” 

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose of Congregation B’nai Amoona said that meeting the needs of the elderly was a core Jewish value.

“Our seniors should continue to live with dignity,” he said. “It is a biblical injunction to rise in the face of the hoary headed. This is a wonderful way in which to actualize that metaphorical understanding of that remarkably profound text.”

Rep. Sue Meredith, D-71st, said that she also wishes the project well. Covenant lies within her district as do some other parts of the NORC.

Meredith said that in previous generations, senior options consisted only of staying in one’s house or moving to a nursing home.

“Now, there are lots of places in between where you can age in place or move to a place that has a number of people in the community who have similar demographics to you,” she said.

Jill Schupp, a Democratic state representative whose 88th District lies just on the other side of Schuetz Road, said she was excited about the prospect and hoped tax credits for the plan, presently languishing in the General Assembly, would move forward soon, perhaps by March.

“My grandmother lived there many years ago so I have especially fond memories of visiting with her there and I remember her spending a lot of time in the lobby talking to other residents,” said Schupp, who is Jewish. “I just think it is a great place for our seniors, as they age, to maintain their quality of life, have people around them, be energized by the programs and by their neighbors.”

The most important vote of confidence, however, comes from residents themselves.

Ruth Mariam, 89, called the idea “fantastic.” 

“They say this has been rumored for years and I kept saying I don’t believe anything is going to happen because the way the government is right now with money, money is so tight,” said Mariam, an eight-year resident of a single-bedroom apartment in the Covenant I building which is set to be relocated first. “I couldn’t believe HUD was actually giving us money.”

She said her biggest hopes are for the new building to have more washing machines and dryers as well as a dining room within reasonable walking distance.

She also praised Denison’s leadership.

“You can’t realize how pleased we are to have this lady here with us,” she said.

Resident Elizabeth Gorin, 71, said management had held meetings with tenants as far back as two years ago asking what kinds of improvements they might like to see. She suggested flooring that was friendly for walkers and wheelchairs.

“Some others suggested more closet space,” she said. “Everybody wants more storage.”

The Covenant I resident said she was optimistic that some of their thoughts would be taken into account in the new building.

“They’ve already assured us that they will have professionals move us so that takes away the worry about how we’re going to do that since most of us aren’t capable of packing or unpacking,” she said.

She said the main question people are asking now is what the layout of the apartments might be like.

“It is not so much concern as curiosity,” she said.

Dee Wolf, a 14-year resident of Covenant I and head of the tenants’ council, said she thinks most people are satisfied with the idea of a new building though she thinks some with larger double unit dwellers may be unhappy over the prospect of losing those. 

She’s also heard some express concern over the disruption of moving while others worry over the eventual location of the dining area.

“There are about 70 or 80 people who eat down in our dining room every day,” said the 76-year-old.

She said a tenants’ council meeting with Denison is set for early this month to answer questions.

As for herself, Wolf said she’s “delighted and thrilled” at having a new edifice since maintenance problems in Covenant I have been a constant headache.

“I’m just hoping we have more closet space and a bigger kitchen and I’ll be a happy camper,” she said.