Loretta Kinger started going to the Jewish Community Center, or JCC, in Squirrel Hill 17 years ago. Her sister had recently died, after battling cancer for just two months, and Kinger, 85, said she didn’t know where to go.
That all changed at the JCC, where Kinger now has lunch nearly every day.
“It gives you a chance to be social with other people. You make a lot of friends. And it makes you feel like you belong someplace,” Kinger said.
The lunch program, called the J Cafe, also is a remarkably affordable option for seniors 60 years and older. They’re asked to make a suggested donation of $1.50 for each meal, but Sybil Lieberman of AgeWell at the JCC, a nationally-accredited senior center within the JCC, emphasized that it’s merely a suggestion.
“Zero’s OK, $10 is OK. We don’t discuss money,” she said. “It’s designed so anybody could feel comfortable eating here.”
AgeWell has been running the JCC’s lunch program as part of Allegheny County’s Area Agency on Aging since the 1970s, according to staff. On an average day, they say, the program serves 150 meals.
Like Kinger, many of the guests at the J Cafe lunch program are regulars and have become friends with each other.
“If you’re alone, you have friends here to sit with and to eat with, rather than eat alone at home,” said Audrie Furcron, who has been coming to lunch at the JCC for 12 years. “Or many times, people won’t eat - that’s the other thing. Because they are alone, they do not want to prepare [meals].”
At 71 years old, Karen Smith is one of the younger people in the group, and she appreciates getting to know others who overcome challenges that she expects to face as she gets older.
“How uplifting it is to see somebody come in in a walker and still come,” she observed. “They’re not staying back. They’re part of this community, and they come and they enjoy life. And they learn - we learn from each other.”
A primary goal of the J Cafe is to encourage socialization among seniors.
“Socializing, interacting with people helps older adults and everybody remain healthier, which in turn helps them to remain independent and at home longer,” said AgeWell Information and Referral Specialist Amy Gold.
The J Cafe also gives Gold and her colleagues a way to keep track of which guests might need extra assistance.
“It allows us to see people all the time, and then we recognize if there’s a change in someone, or we have a concern about someone,” Gold explained. “That way we’re able to connect them to resources or to involve their families members.”
And for those who stop showing up, Lieberman adds, other guests “will let us know so that we can make that phone call and see where they’ve been.”
Some seniors volunteer as servers at J Cafe, which Gold said can give them an escape from other challenges in their life such as the loss of a loved one.
“Although they may come for lunch, there is a whole lot more going on,” Gold said.
The J Cafe is open from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday. It serves hot and cold Kosher meals and is open to all seniors.