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Once a St. Louis NORC volunteer, Sarah Levinson now its director

Sarah Levinson

In late August, new St. Louis NORC Director Sarah Levinson speaks at a dance event at the Jewish Community Center for NORC residents. Photo: Zach Dalin, courtesy of Jewish Federation of St. Louis

Sarah Levinson doesn’t just run the local Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. She also happens to be a resident. That isn’t a first for her either. She lived in a NORC while going to the University of Southern California earning her masters in gerontology.

“I did some of my practicum there. I thought it was a terrific program,” said Levinson, 33, who later obtained another masters in psychology with a focus on aging from Washington University. “I would do weekly visiting with people as a volunteer. When I found out about this NORC, which I read about because it is recognized nationally, I thought that’s something I can do.”

And as NORC manager that’s just what she does, helping to link elderly residents with volunteers and resources in a number of neighborhoods near the Millstone Campus under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Starting as a volunteer with the initiative when she came to St. Louis in 2009, the New York native was named to lead the enterprise earlier this year after a stint at both the Mid-East Area Agency on Aging and the Jewish Community Center’s Adult Day Center, both of which have focused on her history of serving seniors.

“They’re my neighbors,” she said. “Older adults have so much to add. They’ve lived rich lives…It is just a privilege to get to know people and help them.”

She sometimes even took her 11-month old daughter Hannah along on visits.

“That’s something that’s really important,” she said. “I think that’s part of how I grew up too, always going with my parents to visit older relatives and to do nice things for older people, to show them respect and just get to know them. That’s something I want Hannah to grow up doing.”

What is a NORC?

A NORC is a naturally occurring retirement community meaning that people are aging in their homes. We offer all sorts of great activities and volunteer services… While we offer programming that is perhaps more obviously health-related (e.g., blood pressure checks, chair yoga, health and wellness talks), our bus trips, annual dance, volunteer opportunities, technology classes and support, book club, art and writing classes, dinners out with friends, etc. all support various aspects of health… Our NORC members also get a discounted rate to the Jewish Community Center to exercise and that’s huge.

How do you help seniors through the NORC?

Socialization is one big piece of it. Just connecting people to each other and connecting them to different things in the community is really valuable. When NORC started, they did a needs assessment and found out that people didn’t really know their neighbors and as a result of this program, they’ve really gotten to know their neighbors much better as well as community resources in the area.

Can this have impacts on health and wellness?

We tell older adults that everything is connected. If you are isolated and not socializing often, then your health suffers. I think that’s the major piece…We really get to know our folks so we can kind of see if things are changing for them and if we can provide them with assistance or if there are resources within the community we can connect them to. It might be Jewish Family & Children’s Services or the Mid-East Area Agency on Aging or the County Older Residents Program.

What do you recommend seniors do to stay active?

What they want to do. What they like to do. I think there is this idea that older people all want to do the same thing but I think we really need to listen to them and hear what they want to do.

Is there a strong Jewish presence in the NORC?

It is about 50/50 — 50 percent Jewish/50 percent non-Jewish. That’s one thing that we’re really proud of is that, although it is a program of Jewish Federation of St. Louis, we’re proud that we are serving people who are Jewish and non-Jewish because it is part of Jewish values to support our older adults.

I understand you were a volunteer for four years. What role do volunteers play?

We get a lot of thank you notes. People say that we really help them to stay in their homes. We have volunteers who help with fall and spring yardwork. We have volunteers who go out and give one-on-one computer assistance. Volunteers will take a look at a drain, change a light bulb, things that people used to be able to do with no problem, but it is more difficult to do now. Even if they do have kids in town, they might not want to call their kids to help with that. They don’t want to be a burden.

Tell me about your professional history.

I was at the Adult Day Center at the J for a little while and then I was with the Mid-East Area Agency on Aging. While there I was part of a team that helped to develop a model that got national recognition for creating an innovative alternative to the traditional senior center. That program was called Choice. We were partnering with local libraries and other community locations where older adults were already going to bring the kind of programs, activities, services, food that is typically offered at the senior center but bringing them into the community. We got programming to a lot more people getting access to resources. With NORC too, we’re offering these programs because it is wonderful to get together and to socialize and to connect with other people, but we also get to know our folks. They trust us. When we connect them to other organizations or people that can assist them, they trust that resource.

For more information on the NORC, visit stlnorc.org or call 314-442-3859.