Fox Point native Melissa Kahn has built a career in which she’s been able to pursue her passion for helping healthy adults deal with catastrophic diagnoses, while exploring the nexus of art, science and medicine and living a Jewishly involved life.
After graduating from Nicolet High School, Kahn studied art therapy, eventually becoming involved with people living with dementia. That led to the project-based consulting around Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia she’s been working on for decades.
“Every few years I get to start and develop something new,” she said. “I love walking in where there’s an idea and no blueprint.”
Kahn, now living in Chicago, has worked with the Council of Jewish Elderly, the Metropolitan Health Care Council in Chicago, and currently is on the advisory board at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center.
“Fortunate” was the term Kahn used to describe the way her career has spooled out, allowing her the ability to pick and choose her work.
“I only take on projects I feel passionate about. If I don’t care about it, I’m not going to dive into it,” she said.
Melabev, a 33-year-old non-profit based in Jerusalem, is one of her current clients. The agency grew out of the realization of its founders, social worker Leah Abramowitz and geriatrician Arnold Rosin, that many of their cognitively impaired clients were Holocaust survivors. Their short-term memories were compromised, but their long-term memories weren’t. Holocaust survivors and institutions were not a good fit, the pair realized.
“Their needs were really different,” Kahn said, “and (Rosin and Abramowitz) wanted to create programs and services that were community – and not institutionally – based.”
She went to Israel to see the operation, which sustains itself through donations and grants, and holds an annual walk-a-thon. It has a staff of more than 80, a robust volunteer corps, five day centers and a call center that conducts daily welfare checks on elderly Israelis between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The staff is multilingual and multiculturally trained.
“It’s really remarkable,” Kahn said, “Most nonprofits can keep barely more than one day center open, so at Melabev what really struck me was that they had five centers and five languages.”
Melabev serves Arabic, English, French, Hebrew and Russian language speakers. It’s also, she said, one of the first agencies in Israel to work with people diagnosed with early onset dementias.
Kahn has set up a fundraising arm in the United States, but her deep connections in the health care world have allowed her to identify potential partnerships.
One link she can already see is with Northwestern University. The school runs a program pairing first-year medical students with people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and uses that to see whether there is a correlation between program participation and the students’ eventual choice of medical practice. Kahn said she could envision a similar program with Melabev and Israeli medical students.
Those connections were the spark for what has become a niche consulting business.
In 2005, a doctor friend called and asked her to talk to an extended family member who had just been diagnosed with dementia.
“Nobody had prepared them for what the road ahead looked like and what they could do to be better prepared emotionally, financially and physically,” she said. “There were certain issues that hadn’t been addressed.”
Three weeks later, the doctor called back to tell her that she had three more families who would be willing to pay for the advice she’d given her family member. Kahn now provides preventive care planning for families on a contract basis, and has had clients in Milwaukee.
“I don’t stay in the picture long,” she said. “I give them the tools they need today, let them know the questions they need to ask doctors, legal counsel, financial advisers and their team of people so they’re better prepared.”
One example, she said, is of knowing how to hire a caregiver. For some families, she said, she’ll write a job description for a caregiver, and apprise them regarding the dos and don’ts of communication with their affected family member.
With more than five million Americans currently living with Alzheimer’s disease and that number expected to rise to more than 15 million by 2050, Kahn said what’s happening with Melabev in Israel is a glimmer of light in an otherwise dark future.
“In our country, politicians haven’t really talked about this at all, (about) aging and what the world is going to look like in the next 20 to 30 years,” she said, adding that Melabev’s model could be replicated in America, “but it would take a tremendous amount of money because aging isn’t covered for (medical) reimbursement. When a family goes and gets assessed by a cognitive neurologist, that’s covered, but once you’re diagnosed and those two to 18 years in-between, nobody talks about that.”