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LIFE AT JCHE: The comments of Marvin Wilkenfeld, a resident of Coleman House

Posted: June 21, 2011

How did I relocate here in Newton after a lifetime in New York City? It’s a complicated story. Suffice to say that my long-term plan was not to retire to live in senior subsidized housing, but I thank the stars that aligned and got me here.

Briefly, I had just opened one of the first natural food stores in Manhattan in June 1970. This was an entirely new venture for me, not having previously run my own business. I had a young family at the time and my previous career was floundering. I did some research hoping to discover the “next big thing” and discovered that the public was becoming more aware of improving their nutrition and choosing organically grown food. The time was right and my business grew steadily during our first few years. As with all innovations, increased competition eventually put added pressure on my business.

We relocated in 1991 to a larger store a short distance away hoping to stimulate new business. It was during the early 90s recession. The move proved to be a costly mistake. In November 1998, I decided to close the store and end an almost 30 year run.

It was a difficult decision but I never looked back.

Within a few weeks, I was offered a position with one of my suppliers as a road salesman. At age 63 I felt a little like Willy Loman beating the pavement for a sale.

I had at that point not made any plans for retirement and having been self-employed since 1970 and living a lifetime in New York City, the idea of relocation would be a major change.

It was sometime in 2000 that a good friend suggested that I apply for an apartment at Coleman House. At the time, I was comfortably ensconced in a spacious apartment in White Plains NY. With the loss of my business and as an employee not earning enough in commissions, it was clear that I would eventually have to plan to live on a reduced income. I knew nothing about Newton or JCHE housing but because my friend spoke so highly of the advantages of living at Coleman, it seemed to be a reasonable option that I could not pass up. I applied for an apartment.

In February 2004 I received a call from Robin Nasson advising me that I was number one on the wait list. I drove to Newton on a blustery cold morning to meet Robin and to consider if I was ready to relocate to a new area and start a new life.

I think the excitement of the challenge was too appealing not to consider. The advantages clearly outweighed the feeling of dislocation. I also came to acknowledge that I was indeed a senior by virtue of age and it was appropriate to consider that living in senior housing was part of the process of coming of age. It was time to “play with kids my own age.” I would not be out of reach of my daughters and grandkids as long as I could drive to New York for visits, and my family seemed very supportive.

By June 2004 I moved in with a mountain of boxes to begin a new chapter in my life.

When I awoke the first morning to the sound of chirping birds and a fresh breeze blowing through the open window, it was truly the first day of the rest of my life. My OCD kicked into gear and within a few days, I had my little home in shape and ready for prime time. It took time to reorient myself. I eventually became involved with various adult education courses emotionally joined the community.

Living here has enabled me to enrich my life in a number of ways. About two years ago I volunteered to take over the management of our convenience store. It became a labor of love to merchandize and promote the store as a convenient place to shop especially during our prolonged snowy winters.

After training at the Newton Public Library, I have enjoyed coaching some of our Russian neighbors as an ESL instructor. I’ve put some of my people skills to use as a tour guide at WGBH telling guests about the value of public broadcasting and of the programs that originate at WGBH and are shared with the world.

Living at Coleman House has given me a sense of financial security as well as physical wellbeing. I feel cared for and cared about living in this supportive community. It has given me numerous opportunities to reinvent myself. I look forward to traveling new roads, knowing that even in a world of unpredictability, I can rely on having an affordable roof over my head. My proverbial ship may not have come in as I imagined and the vacation home in sunny Florida belongs to someone else. I have security that is priceless and the spirit to return to this community some of what I have been given.

Thanks especially to the staff of Coleman. To Robin, Vicki, Sasha and Elizabeth for their dedication in making Coleman House a home instead of a warehouse for older folks. I have lived in some expensive apartments in New York where the landlord was considered royalty and the building superintendent would expect a contribution to his personal fund for any maintenance. What a pleasure to have a stopped drain or a leaky faucet fixed the same day with a smile and a thank you.

Coleman House and Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly deserve every accolade earned for offering quality and affordable housing for seniors. Many of us as we age may be faced with challenges that will require all of our resources, but knowing that we have the stability of an affordable home will be invaluable.


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Comment by Tara Forgit | 07/20/2011

This is such a sweet & heartwarming story of just one persons life you all have touched...

Comment by Jessica Epstein Hyman | 08/31/2012

I am a long lost cousin of Marvin Wilkenfeld. If you are in touch with him, please ask him to send me an email.