Cape Cod activist, 107, asks for help via GoFundMe to stay in her home
CHATHAM — Juliet Bernstein never expected she would live so long. When she retired in 1971, she thought she had saved enough. But as she gets ready to turn 108 on July 2, she has noticed her money dwindling and is reaching out to her community for help.
Bernstein started a GoFundMe site to help her remain in her home until she dies. She is still sharp — telling stories, learning how to work her new smartphone and reading her newspaper to stay up on current events. But she requires almost around-the-clock care by a few different in-home aides.
In order to stay in the home she has lived in since 1971, Bernstein has to pay the aides out-of-pocket. That’s where the GoFundMe, set up with the help of her son Bruce, can make a difference.
As of Wednesday, Bernstein has raised $13,243 of her $25,000 goal, with help from 96 donors.
“There are people who have even less than what I have,” Bernstein said. “I’m not complaining, but I felt that I wanted to leave something for my children. I have the house. I want to keep the house for them.”
Bernstein is a well-known figure in Chatham and on Cape Cod. She served in the League of Women Voters of Lower Cape Cod and in the ’80s was actively involved in the Cape Cod Chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international peace group created during World War I.
In Chatham, she pushed the previously all-male Chatham Town Band to include women, and helped the Chatham Council on Aging set up a nutrition program for the elderly.
Bernstein was an activist, arguing for women’s rights to legal abortions, fighting for a worldwide ban on the use of land mines, and protesting the Iraq War. In 2019, she received the Mercy Otis Warren Cape Cod Woman of the Year Award.
Bernstein originally had savings of a little more than $100,000 and a pension. When she stopped working as a teacher in New York in 1971, her salary was $7,000 per year, and she felt rich then, she said.
But now, she receives $900 per month in social security, and her pension is about $2,500 per month. It is not enough to stay in her house with the help she needs, she said.
Her three children cannot support her, Bernstein said, because they have families of their own. Her youngest, for instance, is getting ready to send his son to college in the fall, Bernstein said.
Her youngest son, Bruce Bernstein, clarified in a phone interview that all of the children do contribute and support her as best they can. Once she began needing around-the-clock care about four months ago, however, it grew more expensive and the current care is not financially sustainable, Bruce Bernstein said. The family has taken mortgages out on the home to help pay for care and has searched for other resources available, but they could not find any assistance, he said.
“She could go into a nursing home, but she doesn’t want to,” Bruce Bernstein said. “She wants to stay in her home, which she’s been in for 50 years.”
Quandary of living so long
How to pay for elderly care is a big issue, Bruce said. There should be assistance available to help pay for home health aides.
“She’s a very independent person,” he continued, “and it is very important for her to have as much control as she can. Her mind is still there. Her mind is fine. … But her body is not there anymore.”
Juliet Bernstein has Medicare coverage, but she is only eligible for care at a nursing facility, and she does not meet the requirements for Medicaid.
“So that’s the situation that I’m in,” she said. “That’s why I say it’s not good to live so long.”
When asked about long-term care insurance, Bernstein said it is very expensive and that she is not exactly the greatest candidate.
“Not at my age,” she said. “Nobody would give it to you. It would be terribly expensive with any insurance policy. The older you get, the more expensive it is because your chances of dying are sooner. They’re not making money on you, believe me.”
Mandi Speakman, director at the Chatham Council on Aging, said Bernstein’s problem is not uncommon, although she has never seen a GoFundMe used for this reason before.
For people who have achieved such longevity, Speakman said, it is likely they were not prepared to plan for that.
“It’s not something that we were taught to do,” Speakman said. Women, especially, may not have been taught financial literacy, so as they get older, they find themselves in challenging situations much later in life, she said.
Massachusetts has a variety of programs and resources, but it is not enough, Speakman said. MassHealth and Medicaid will pay for care, but not in the person’s home, she said. People must spend out their assets and reach a certain level of poverty, then the paid care will be available.
“For someone like Juliet, who wants to remain in her home,” she said, “there are limited options.”
The Council on Aging can help most when people can seek assistance earlier and can proactively get connected to resources, Speakman said, such as financial planning for longevity.
Speakman sees Bernstein’s story as an opportunity to bring people’s attention to the need for financial literacy and to take early advantage of the programs that councils on aging offer.
“It’s dry and boring and nobody wants to think about getting older,” Speakman said. “It’s a hard sell, but those are the kinds of programs that can help people be proactive and make choices for themselves.”
Contact Jessica Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @jess_hillyeah.