At 108, Juliet Bernstein Turns To The Community For Help

By: Tim Wood

Juliet Bernstein. COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM – In less than a month, Juliet Bernstein will turn 108. She's the oldest resident in town, the holder of the Boston Post Cane, and remains as sharp as a tack.

And she is adamant that she does not want to leave the home she's lived in since 1971.

In order to stay at home, however, she needs around the clock care. And she's at a point where her money is running out.

To try to bridge the gap between her expenses, Social Security and her small pension, Bernstein did what many in dire straits do these days: She started a Go Fund Me campaign.

“I know there are others that need it more than I do, but I want to stay in my home and do not want to go to a nursing home,” she said. As of early this week, nearly $7,000 had been raised toward the $25,000 goal.

Keeping seniors in their homes is an oft-stated goal, but doing so can run into difficulties when financial and medical issues clash.

“This is not an uncommon story,” said Council on Aging Director Mandi Speakman, although it's the first time she's seen a Go Fund Me campaign for this purpose. While the Cape and Massachusetts offer a lot of services for seniors, “that doesn't mean it's enough.” Resources are available to cover the cost of personal care, but not at a person's house.

Bernstein is well known as an activist who helped break gender barriers – she was instrumental in getting the Chatham Band to accept women musicians – and advocated for peace and human rights. In 2017, she was among the woman profiled in the book “We the Resilient” about the passage of the 19th Amendment, in which she recalled traveling with in a horse-drawn cart so that her mother could cast her first vote. In 2019 she was named the Mercy Warren Otis Cape Cod Woman of the Year. She's remained true to her principles, even as age has robbed her of the ability to act on them other than through letters to the editor.

Bernstein spent her career as a teacher in New York City and received a pension when she retired in 1971. “You can imagine what it was then,” she said. The pension and Social Security was enough for many years. Then she had to take out a mortgage on her home, which she'd never had to do before, in order to make repairs. Now she needs assistance with many daily tasks, and the added expense of home health aids has exceeded her income.

Medicare “won't pay for this at all,” she said, and her inquiries at different agencies yielded no assistance. Her children help when they can, but two are retired on fixed incomes and her youngest has a child in college.

One of Bernstein's quotes in “We the Resilient” points out that government should be there to help people, noted her friend Angela Sasso.

“It's ironic that for all the fighting she's done she should be falling through the cracks when she needs help the most,” Sasso said.

Many seniors fail to plan adequately for their retirement, Speakman said. “Financial literacy and retirement planning is just really horribly nonexistent, especially for older seniors,” she said. Many people don't plan for the longevity many seniors reach these days, especially those like Bernstein, who turns 108 July 2.

“So often, people come to us when it's already too late,” Speakman said.

There are ways to help, however. Here on the Cape there are a lot of resources to provide food assistance, although many seniors will often waive away those programs, saying they should go to others. But Speakman said saving money on food can free up cash for other needs – like home care.

In extreme situation, there are homeless prevention programs for seniors and services available through the SHINE counselors at the COA. The agency also runs programs to help seniors understand finances and estate planning. The next will be held on June 17 at 10 a.m.; call the COA at 508-945-5190 for more information and to register.

Sometimes to get the help they need seniors need to spend themselves into poverty, Speakman said. She hopes her agency and others can do a better job with outreach so that more people don't end up in this sort of situation.

“In the end, it's not enough and it's not satisfying,” said Speakman.

To contribute to Juliet Bernstein's Go Fund Me campaign, visit gofundme.com and search “Juliet Bernstein.”