Q&A with Jody Blum

Why did you want to work with seniors?

I always had a very close relationship with my grandparents. I enjoyed their company and their stories. But I lived very far away from them – even more so when I moved away from home after college. I realized I wanted more of a connection with people of that generation. So when I first came to Israel, I volunteered to visit seniors in their homes in Safed. That was the beginning of my “working” love affair with seniors. I always felt love towards them, and love and appreciation from them. There’s always been a deep personal connection between me and every one of my clients.

Tell us a little about your background – personal and educational.

I was born in Cleveland in 1962 and moved to Los Angeles when I was 2-years-old. I went to UCLA for my undergraduate studies, majoring in psychology and business administration. In 1985, after college, I came to Israel and enrolled in the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) program. I then spent two years studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, to improve my knowledge and observance of Jewish tradition. I also met my husband there. We moved back to the U.S. in 1987 and I went on to complete an MSW with a specialization in geriatrics at UC Berkeley. We returned to Israel in 1994 and have lived in Jerusalem ever since with our three children.

Where did you work before Israel?

My first job was at Vesper Hospice where I was a caseworker helping people at the end of their lives and their families cope with the emotional stress of dying. At the same time, I started with the Northern California Presbyterian Homes Western Park Apartments, a senior residential facility, as their in-house social worker. I was the only social worker there for 200+ residents. My main goal was to help the residents stay independent at home. That included everything regarding the financial, social, emotional, physical and mental health realms of their lives.

I would help them in crisis management – for example, if someone had a fall and needed hospitalization. I helped them get the government benefits they were eligible for, as well as physical help, such as crutches and walkers after breaking a hip. I dealt a lot with Medicare and the offices of the health insurance organizations. Plus there was grief and general counseling and coordinating medical visits. It was a very demanding, but rewarding, job.

What did you do professionally when you got to Israel?

After I made aliyah, I landed a job in the Office in Social Welfare for City of Jerusalem. I was a case manager for 250 seniors, all of whom were living at home. I would see some clients on a weekly basis; others I’d just see just once. I would help them with family problems; I’d make sure they got all the rights they were owed from bituach leumi (Israel’s social security administration), I’d take care of their paperwork for that. And I’d determine whether it was safe for them to continue living on their own. It was in many ways similar to what I was doing in California, just not in a single residential building.

I then took a few years off to raise my three children. When I went back to work, I decided to go out on my own. I founded a small business called Personal Organization Services, which helped people manage all the “piles of paperwork,” as I liked to call it, that they’d accumulated at home or in their home offices. I didn’t work exclusively with seniors but I always had a significant senior client base.

While running Personal Organization Services, I took a class on household budgeting. This would change my life. It turned out I was very good at it. I was the A+ student in the class! And it worked. My husband and I started saving money. I realized I could offer that to private clients as well. I called the next phase in my entrepreneurial journey minusPLUS.

What did minusPLUS do?

At the time, overdraft was a very serious issue in Israel. Since then, the banks have created new policies, but 10 years ago, people were really out of control, falling into major debt (or “minus” as it’s called here). Immigrants had the hardest time understanding the situation – it was so different than what they were used to in the old country. And everything was in Hebrew. That turned out to be a big advantage that I brought to the table: I can communicate with the Hebrew-speaking bureaucracy for my clients who may not be fluent in the language.

I started by teaching group classes, then moved on to one-on-one support, seeing people in the privacy of their own homes, where we could work with their own paperwork and bills, with their computers open in front of us. I would set up my clients on a software program called Quicken so they could ultimately do their household budgeting independently of me.

I love helping people save money, beating the system, advocating on their behalf with service providers, maintaining order and bringing relief. But most of all, I love developing personal relationships with people. I fall in love with each and every one of my clients. I find my work to be a total joy – if you can call dealing with Israeli bureaucracy a joy! I have been doing this since 2004.

And now you’ve opened Service for Seniors…

Yes. A big part of my client base at minusPLUS was seniors and now, with Services for Seniors, I am focusing exclusively on this population, helping them set up and maintain their budgeting and financial systems, pay bills and, yes, manage those ever-growing piles of paperwork. For some seniors with memory loss, it’s hard to maintain an organized system. For others, my help frees up their adult children from the task of maintaining their parent’s financial, bureaucratic and organizational issues so that they can spend more quality time with their loved one. It’s really an ideal situation. I combine my geriatric social work background and intimate knowledge of seniors’ needs with one-on-one hands-on coaching and a focus on organization and finances.

Can you give us an example of the kind of work you do for your senior clients.

Sometimes you never know what will hit you…literally. One of my clients was in a serious car accident. It was a life-changing medical situation and we needed to quickly create a complete financial analysis of her income and spending. Her unexpected physical condition taxed her savings. We needed to assess her situation to determine if she had enough money to live on. Now I work with her on a regular basis to stay on top of her budgeting. I make sure that her caregiver’s quarterly bituach leumi payments are made and that visas and work permits are renewed on time.

For this client – and all my senior clients – I help them get online with their banks, so they don’t have to run out every month to ask for paper print outs and can do simple tasks like order checkbooks via the web. Some clients check their statements online themselves; for others I do it for them. One of my most challenging clients has dementia; her children trust me to honestly manage her finances, to let her know when she needs to transfer money over from her savings to checking accounts or bring in dollars. I’m the responsible one keeping the finger on the pulse, so to speak.

What is the first thing you do with a new client?

The most important first task is to attack all of a client’s bills – Internet, gas, electric, water, telephone (including home, long distance and cellular) – we go over it all with a fine tooth comb to ensure that they’re only paying for what’s necessary; that they cancel services they’re not using; and that they add any services that might be helpful. Usually in just the first few meetings, I can save a client thousands of shekels. Then we start cleaning up the client’s filing systems, getting rid of things and making it easier to access what’s important.

I implore my clients to make lists of all their accounts. I’ve had clients find accounts with tens of thousands of shekels that they didn’t remember they had.

Sometimes my work involves teaching clients how to use technology, such as their computers, phones and fax machines. Or I’ll do simple tasks for them – such as scanning an article they found in the newspaper and attaching it to an email to send to their grandchildren. One of my clients is an author with limited technical skills, so I help her by typing her articles into the computer.

What other ways can you save your clients money?

For some of my clients, I create a system for tracking charity, so they can see how much they’ve given, to whom and when. So when they get a call from a charity, they can easily reference their history with that group or similar ones. Very often, people wind up giving twice to the same charity without knowing. This puts them more in control of their giving.

It’s very important in Israel to track things carefully. Companies will often offer services for a limited time only, after which the price jumps back up. It’s true that the companies are getting better at informing people when the “deal” period is over, but not always. And even if they do, they may send an SMS or mail in Hebrew and the client doesn’t understand what it’s staying. So I create a system so that my client or I gets in touch with these paid services every half year to year, to ensure that we are always getting the best price possible.

Here’s a specific example: one of my clients got a great deal from Orange (their cell phone provider) that had no monthly fee for an entire year. So I wrote in the calendar the week before the offer was due to expire and contacted Orange to ask if there was a new or better deal. And there was. So instead of my client getting charged an additional fee, they changed their package on time and saved even more money.

The phone companies are notoriously difficult to work with.

That’s for sure! Phone bills are deliberately tricky and hard to read. One of my clients was paying for a 500 minute a month package, but when we looked at her calling habits, we discovered she was making less than 200 minutes a month of calls. So we called Bezeq (her phone operator), calculated how many agorot it would cost to pay by the minute, and we wound up saving NIS 60 every month by eliminating the original plan.

Another client had canceled one of her cell phone plans but she was still getting billed NIS 160 a month. This had been going on for years. It added up to almost NIS 2,000 a year! We found the mistake and requested a refund retroactively. We got it and the client saved many thousands of shekels, not to mention all the thousands she would have paid in the coming years if the error had not been caught. My clients trust me to be their advocate; that I will go out and get them the best prices, just as I would for my own family.

Do you work mostly with couples? Singles?

I work with both, but the truth is, I have a lot of clients who are widows and I start working with them after their husbands have died. In some of these cases, the husband took care of all the finances. He read all the bills and knew where all the money was going. This can be very overwhelming for a newly widowed woman and I can help them provide the expertise that’s tragically gone missing.

You’ve been described as a “hired daughter.” What does that mean exactly?

In addition to all the organizational and bureaucratic work I do for my clients, a personal relationship always grows. Yes, my clients do pay me, but they get a friendly ear that will always be there to listen. They can share things they may not be comfortable sharing with their own children, be it financial, emotional or physical. Our work together is completely confidential. My clients know they can tell me anything and they can trust that it won’t go beyond the walls of their house.

Aren’t there other organizations that do similar work?

There are groups that help with specific issues, like getting out of overdraft or setting up appointments with doctors and the like. What I offer is different: it’s comprehensive, including the organization, financial and – most important – emotional/personal element. It combines my communication and relationship skills with my background in psychology, social work, geriatrics and business administration. So, for another organization, it’s not so much about replicating a “system” but rather a person with a unique set of skills. Someone else can go through all your files and even save you money, but ultimately you want to work with someone you trust, to whom you can open up your heart; someone who really cares and loves you.

I know it sounds like a cliché but it’s true: this is more than a job for me. It’s a passion. I really love working with seniors and I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to open Services for Seniors.

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