Bonnie Curkin, the founder of Bubbe & Zayde’s Place, is no stranger to helping the elderly or to giving a voice to those who cannot be heard. Growing up in a household where her grandmother lived, she was expected not only to help her grandmother but to give the same sense of dignity and respect to elderly neighbors.
Curkin’s mother raised her and her sister alone in New Haven, Connecticut. Attending Jewish day schools, Curkin developed a strong work ethic, a desire to help others and a need to be a champion for the underdog. Her mother told her, “Never complain about doing for others. Only be upset when others have to do for you. No matter how tired you may get, be grateful when you are the one who is doing something.”
Curkin always believed in stepping up to the plate. “Opportunity always knocks; the key is to be prepared when it knocks.”
A strong believer in education, Curkin earned master’s degrees in psychology and art and a doctorate in psychology. She was one of five teachers to write the elementary school curriculum for the state of Connecticut, one of the first eight teachers to participate in “open space schools,” one of two people to work on Title 7 (civil rights) programs in the Connecticut schools and the developer of a program with Wesleyan University to feed breakfast to students. She also served as the president of the local ORT chapter and was active in synagogue life.
A move to California changed Curkin’s career direction while maintaining her focus on making a difference. “People should keep reinventing themselves and work to change other people’s lives,” she said.
After substitute teaching for one day and then writing a newsletter about synagogue life in Orange County, she was called to work at a senior living facility thirty years ago. Curkin did everything and learned everything – activities, business development, religious affairs, resident relations—and then decided to do it on her own 10 years later. She knew the community, developed personal relationships and worked as hard as she could to make everything run smoothly.
“My dream was to have a Jewish home with a kibbutz-like atmosphere,” Curkin explained. In 1998 she opened Bubbe & Zayde’s Place. A single woman with children out of state, she plunged into the venture, moving in with the residents and living with them for four years. She learned hands-on and grew even more sensitive to the needs of the seniors she was serving.
Today she has five homes in a circle, with pathways, fountains and fruit trees connecting them. “Residents have the best of both worlds—their own home to live in with a few others as well as a community of 30 people when they want more stimulation,” she said.
Curkin also believes that aging Jewish parents should be in a Jewish home. In spite of memory lapses, people respond to prayers and melodies from bygone days. Residents are eager to partake in Shabbat and holiday services and appreciate having people to say prayers for them when their health deteriorates. They relate to rabbis and congregants from local synagogues who come to talk or lead services and enjoy the presence of children from day schools and religious schools.
Especially gratifying to Curkin is the fact that she has been able to communicate her love for her work to the next generation, just as her mother did for her. “We pride ourselves on our family-owned business,” she said. “We have two administrators—my son, Seth Curkin, Esq., and my son-in-law, Shimon Cagan, E.M.T. They gave up other careers to be part of Bubbe & Zayde’s and extend it into the future. It’s something I gave birth to that they would like to grow.”
There are challenges too. Curkin believes that she operates too much from her heart. She added that the senior care industry is highly regulated with “every government agency watching you and making it difficult.” Admitting that sometimes she gets really tired, because, ”this is a demanding business,” Curkin says she gets reinvigorated when she remembers her mother’s words, “Be grateful when you can do for others.”
A serious concern is that adult children have difficulty approaching their parents about late-in-life issues, so people come to Bubbe & Zayde’s older and sicker. It takes more resources, but Curkin and her team are up to the challenge.
Curkin firmly believes that people need to make final arrangements while they have the mental faculties to do so. “It’s a mitzvah to prepare for death, but adult children want their parents to make all the decisions, just as they always have,” Curkin said. “We prepare for birth in so many ways—classes, decorating, names—but when it comes to death, people are afraid to talk about it and do things to be ready for it. I believe in preparing for your own death as much as possible. Keep an orderly house and have a plan for everything.”
Curkin summarized, “There are people who build and people who stand by and find criticism in the building. I believe we should keep ourselves so busy and helpful that there is no time to kick down what others are building. If you have time to do that, you’re not busy enough. Never stop working, never stop learning and never stop helping. We are put on this earth to accomplish, to leave a legacy and to help others thrive. Work as hard as you can and make a difference in your community, wrap your arms around somebody, do something to change somebody’s day and focus on somebody else. Take pride in your job, make it the best you can and make somebody happy while you’re doing it.”
Bubbe & Zayde’s Place
Offering a holistic approach to meeting the various and constantly changing needs of elderly loved ones, Bubbe & Zayde’s attempts to offer the best care possible while. It enables residents to maintain their sense of independence while also feeling like part of a community.
Bubbe & Zayde’s Place
1534 E. 21st St.
Santa Ana, CA 92705
Ilene Schneider is a contributing writer to jlife magazine.