What does growing older mean to Jewish St. Louisans today?

Sylvia and Sidney Rosen at their home in Covenant Place. Photo: Ellen Futterman

By Ellen Futterman, Editor & Eric Berger, Staff Writer

There are only a few things we can count on in life, and getting older is one of them. All of us age. Every day. And that’s a good thing, considering the alternative.

As it turns out, more of us are living longer. 

People over the age of 85 comprise the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population, reports the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2050, the population age 65 and over is expected to be 83.7 million, almost double what it is now. Fueling this silver tsunami are America’s baby boomers, all 79 million, who began turning 65 in 2011 at a rate of 10,000 a day, according to the Pew Research Center. 

Like the rest of the nation, the St. Louis Jewish community is experiencing its own age boom. A Jewish Federation of St. Louis demographic study released last year reported that Jewish adults ages 65 and older represent 22 percent of the local Jewish population. That’s an increase from 17 percent based on a similar study in 1995. 

The recent study also noted that an estimated 17,043 Jewish individuals, ages 51 to 69, make up 28 percent of the local Jewish population, which totals 60,887. If you factor in the 9,018 Jewish seniors ages 70 and older that the study estimates to live here, then roughly 43 percent of the St. Louis Jewish population is age 51 and older.


The Jewish Light embarked on a mission to find out what growing older means to Jewish St. Louisans over age 50. We conducted more than 30 interviews, which include experts on aging, service providers to older adults and Jewish men and women who fit this demographic. What follows are some of their stories and perspectives.


Age is just a number. It’s totally irrelevant unless, of course, you happen to be a bottle of wine. 

Joan Collins

Joan Denison doesn’t think the term “older adult” tells you much about a person. “When we talk about ‘older adults,’ it’s very confusing, in terms of, what is the age of an older adult?” said Denison, executive director of Covenant Place, a retirement community for adults 62 and older located on the campus of the Jewish Community Center in Creve Coeur. 

“Most people don’t think of themselves as being older,” she adds.

Denison and others prefer the term “experienced” because “I think that’s what people feel like as opposed to connecting to an age of some sort.” She and her staff are conscious not to label anyone as senior because the word can carry a stigma. 

No one understands that better than Phil Ruben, event director of the St. Louis Senior Olympics, which take place annually at the JCC over Memorial Day weekend and are open to people 50 and older.

“Fifty-year-olds generally don’t want to associate with something called ‘senior,’” said Ruben, pointing to recent statistics. Of the 990 participants in this year’s games, 89 were between the ages of 50 and 54. The largest group of participants, at 178 strong, was between 60 and 64 years while the 65-to-69-age group closely trailed with 164.  

“The committee last year considered a name change to take senior out of the title,” added Ruben. “But ultimately we decided not to because of our tradition. We thought it would hurt more than help.”

“Age is the acceptance of a term of years. But maturity is the glory of years.”

— Martha Graham

Lynn Friedman Hamilton, 70, seems to have her hands in more volunteer projects than there are hours in the day. Many revolve around two of her passions — the arts and championing the triumphs of older adults.

“Around 2008, I was really missing art and people who talked about art, so I got the idea to curate a show featuring artists over the age of 70,” said Hamilton, who was widowed at 52, lives in Creve Coeur and operated an art gallery in Brentwood in the 1980s. 

Under the umbrella, “Maturity and Its Muse,” the first older adult exhibition opened at the Sheldon Art Galleries in October 2010. Then came a collaboration between senior visual artists and poets at the Regional Arts Commission, followed by a show at Craft Alliance, depicting the transformations older artists had made in their art through the years.

Hamilton also began arts programs for Alzheimer patients at the Kemper Art Museum at Washington University, the Missouri Botanical Gardens and the St. Louis County Library. She currently spearheads an annual film series that highlights “creative aging” and a theater series called “Mature St. Louis Performers for Mature St. Louis Audiences.” It is now in its third season at the Missouri History Museum.

Next up: A community-wide festival celebrating art for senior engagement April 28-May 8, 2016. Hamilton says more than 60 area arts organizations have agreed to participate.

“I have always looked at life as chapters, with a desire to keep reinventing myself,” said Hamilton, who belongs to Temple Emanuel. “I tell my (three) children that while it’s important to reflect on life and learn in hindsight, it’s also important to embrace change and live in the moment.”

Hamilton has a mother living in Florida who is about to turn 95. “I try to visit her every four or five weeks so that we can hang out and have girl time together,” she said. “My mom’s attitude is that if she puts her feet on the ground, it’s going to be a good day. 

“You get to a point in life when you realize that certain ideas and dreams aren’t going to be able to happen,” Hamilton continued. “So you look for consolation prizes. You reprioritize. I really don’t think that’s so bad.”

Age is whatever you think it is. You are as old as you think you are.

Muhammad Ali 

Karen Berry Elbert describes the ongoing age boom as an “evolution” rather than a revolution. Berry Elbert is the St. Louis NORC Manager at the Jewish Federation; NORC stands for Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. To become a member, a person must be at least 65 and live within a three-mile radius of the JCC in Creve Coeur. 

“I think as the number of older adults grows, we will see more of a change in people’s perspectives as to what aging really means,” she said. “I actually think aging has always been one of attitude. There are people at 50 who feel old and frail and people at 90 who are walking on their own steam, with their mental facilities sharp.

“So much of how we view aging in this community and any other is how we view our own aging. Am I a person who thinks I’m young at 63, or am I a person who needs to start scaling back her lifestyle?”

Currently, St. Louis NORC has roughly 660 members, about half of whom are Jewish, says Berry Elbert. Members pay $35 a year ($50 for a couple) for services that include minor home repairs, social activities, volunteer support and discounts at local merchants. Hundreds of others take advantage of the dozens of NORC programs and activities. 

More than anything else, Berry Elbert believes St. Louis NORC has allowed people to stay in their own homes longer, especially those without family support. She is confident that as baby boomers continue to age, more of them will insist on living independently.

“We know that staying in one’s own home contributes to better emotional health, which often translates into better physical health,” she said. “Of late, we are seeing more people ages 65 to 70 joining NORC in larger numbers than in the past. I can’t tell you if that’s attributable to our wonderful services or the JCC discount or being a part of a community of neighbors.”

She recently has noticed differing preferences between that group, which she calls “junior seniors” and their older cohorts. “We see a tendency for our ‘senior seniors’ to participate more in our daytime programming,” she explained. “Our junior seniors prefer evening events, like going out for dinner. Their days are still very busy taking care of grandchildren, volunteering, playing mahjong. Some still go to work.”

“It’s time to stop thinking of age as pathology and start thinking of it as potential.” 

—Jane Fonda 

Arlene Rosengarten, 72, has spent 40 years doing promotional advertising, selling logoed items, but now has shifted some of her focus into leading drawing and painting workshops with older adults at assisted living facilities. 

Last week, at a summit organized by Washington University for entrepreneurs over age 50, she pitched her idea to a panel, a la “Shark Tank” style, for a business centered around art. 

She still works in advertising but said, “At my age, I do what I want to do, and I decided that I want to paint.”

She said she started the business for seniors because, “I’m in that age group, and I want to make people happy when they have no one else around them. It’s going to happen to everybody. I think that not everyone likes to draw — I’m sure — but there’s all kinds of things you can do to help older people.”

Rosengarten, who attends Central Reform Congregation a few times each year, has been married and divorced twice and said the toughest part of getting older is that she “used to be really cute, and you rely on your looks a lot, and the older you get, you can’t do that anymore.

“Now I don’t worry about it because nobody cares,” said Rosengarten. “A lot of young girls don’t think about getting old, but it’s going to happen.”

“I intend to live forever, or die trying.”

— Groucho Marx

An estimated 3,000 Jewish seniors live alone in St. Louis; 87-year-old Jerry Cohen is one of them. His wife, Fran, who died three years ago, is a member of the St. Louis Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in part because she won the first U.S. Racquetball Association Open National Singles Championship.

Today, Cohen still works part-time as an arbitration attorney, works out and socializes at the JCC and belongs to Kol Rinah. He believes every Jew should support a synagogue whether they attend or not.

But “one of the things that surprised me is the fact that I outlived my wife,” said Cohen, who lives in Westwood. “She was the person who was diet conscious and exercise conscious. She was very strong physically. It never occurred to me that I would outlive her and it’s been a shock.”

Of remarrying, he said, “absolutely not,” but he does have “a lady friend who I see from time to time.”

About two years after a spouse has died, 61 percent of men had either remarried or were involved in a new romance, compared with 19 percent of women, according to a study published in the journal of the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists. 

Cohen, who has four children and eight grandchildren, estimates that about half of the other guys his age at the JCC have lost their wives. 

“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength” — Betty Freidan  

At 51, Ellen Abramson seemed like the last person in St. Louis who would suffer a heart attack that resulted in cardiac arrest. As a facilitator at Weight Watchers for 29 years, Abramson was the poster child for healthy eating and working out regularly. 

But genetic predisposition – Abramson’s grandfather had died from heart disease and her father underwent quadruple bypass surgery at the age of 49 – along with years of smoking put her at risk, though at the time she didn’t realize that. And while today, at 58, she doesn’t feel “the least bit old,” recovering from cardiac arrest has had lingering effects.

“Mostly, I feel grateful I am alive and able to do what I love to do, which is work, spend time with my family, exercise, garden and dance,” said Abramson, a United Hebrew congregant who lives in Creve Coeur and is married to Dr. Ernest Abramson, a dentist. The couple’s three adult children and twin grandchildren all live in the St. Louis area, as do Abramson’s parents. 

“I still feel young, but I get tired more easily,” she said. “I think that has a lot to do with what happened to me, and the medication I’m on as a result.

“But compared to anyone else with the same history I’m in very good shape. I really believe eating well and working out everyday is the reason I’m alive.”

They only name things after you when you’re dead or really old.” — George H.W. Bush

If the JCC were a bar, George Spooner and some other octogenarians would be the regulars. There are loads of people who exercise at gyms every day but not as many who also sit and chat — sometimes for hours. 

“What do I like about it?” Spooner, 87, said, sitting among friends in lounge chairs. “Everything. It’s a second home for me.”

For Spooner, a Holocaust survivor, the JCC is both a place to stay healthy and one for camaraderie. 

“I was told something a long time ago, ‘Why do you work out? So you can keep working out,’ ” said Spooner, who is retired but had several careers including selling fragrances and flavorings for 20 years. He now volunteers at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, and tells students the story of how he escaped Vienna via the Kindertransport and landed in England and eventually, the United States.

“I have talked to thousands of children and I tell them if you don’t learn from history, history repeats itself,” said Spooner, who lives in Creve Coeur and has been married for 33 years. He and his wife have three children and four grandchildren, and are not affiliated with any shul

“The joy, the naches I get out of ‘volunteering’ is when the children listen to me,” he added.

“You can live to be 100 if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be 100.”  — Woody Allen

On June 27, Sylvia and Sidney Rosen marked their 70th wedding anniversary. A little more than two weeks earlier, their 68-year-old daughter passed away after a long battle with ovarian cancer. 

Neither Sylvia, 97, nor Sid, who will be 99 on Oct. 29, thought they would outlive their children. Then again, who does? But that’s one of the hardest parts of living for almost a century.

“Everyone is gone,” says Sylvia, woefully.

But there are still poignant moments. Last December, Sid was presented the U.S. Flag of Honor for his distinguished military service in World War II. It’s a proud honor that he likes to share with visitors.

He retired at 62 years old, after selling his auto parts business in Jennings. “We were never rich but we did OK,” he said, adding that Sylvia worked, too, at a printing company. 

Together, they raised two children in University City; their late daughter, who lived with her family in San Francisco, and a son, now in Oklahoma City. They have four grandchildren and seven great grandchildren; none live in St. Louis.

In retirement, they moved to a condo, and then another, and spent winters in Phoenix. Fifteen years ago, after money started to dwindle, they moved to Covenant House (now Covenant Place) “because we couldn’t afford anyplace else,” said Sid.

They like the convenience of living there and the people. Their apartment is small, but lovingly decorated with family pictures, and lots of colorful needlepoint pillows. 

Their physical health isn’t great, but they get around with a cane or a walker, and their minds are engaged, though Sid says his memory is fading. He also has difficulty seeing and hearing.

 A 75-year-old neighbor checks on them regularly, takes them shopping and out for dinner. They call her their angel.

“Living this long is a mixed blessing,” said Sylvia. “I can handle myself but if I go first, what will happen to Sid?”