Canadian Jewish News


Special to The CJN

TORONTO – As Holocaust survivors age, they may have unique needs and exhibit behaviour that presents challenges for their caregivers.

For instance, as a result of traumatic experiences in concentration camps, some survivors are prone to hoarding food.

To help caregivers understand the reasons for such behaviour and learn strategies to cope with it, an educational session was held recently for staff at Comfort Keepers, a company that provides professional caregiving services across Canada.

“Holocaust survivors have their own unique aging needs, so we wanted to make sure our caregivers were addressing those needs,â€? said Laurie Saunders, co-owner of Comfort Keepers, which provides in-home care, as well as assistance to people in hospitals and long-term care facilities.

Saunders enlisted the expertise of Rabbi Ronald Weiss, director of chaplaincy services at Jewish Family & Child Service, who gave an in-depth seminar and training session to a group of about 30 caregivers from Comfort Keepers.

“We helped them understand where the survivors were coming from as a result of their Holocaust experiences and gave them specific tips to hopefully engender a positive outcome,â€? Rabbi Weiss said.

For example, Rabbi Weiss informed the caregivers that the Nazis frequently shouted or spoke very loudly to concentration camp prisoners.

Consequently, hearing loud voices may trigger flashbacks for survivors.

“Whenever caregivers speak to someone having a flashback, they have to be mindful to speak softly and in a compassionate voice… This will help calm them,â€? Rabbi Weiss said.

The rabbi also noted that certain odours and noises, such as the scent of antiseptic or the sound of a dog barking, can also prompt agitated behaviour.

Gaining insight into these triggers will help caregivers appreciate and be more sensitive to survivors’ behaviour, the rabbi said.

Some other situations that are occasionally troublesome for elderly survivors include being in a dark or confined space.

“Darkness and confined spaces can be frightening,â€? Saunders said. “So leaving lights on and ensuring the door isn’t shut when someone is in a room is a good coping strategy.â€?

Both Saunders and Rabbi Weiss stressed that these situations can become more intense for survivors who have dementia and Alzheimer disease.

The rabbi also taught the caregivers about Jewish customs and beliefs, and he showed a video that provided a history lesson on the Holocaust and a discussion on caring for survivors today.

“The video is very effective,â€? Rabbi Weiss said. “It gives a historical context and then shifts to the professional health care mode today with scenes at a long-term care facility.â€?

Saunders said the seminar was practical and helpful.

“The caregivers now understand the context of why some survivors act in a certain way, and that understanding will enhance the bond between our caregivers and their clients,â€? she said.