Dot native, wife give $5m to boost 'memory health' at Hebrew SeniorLife Center

Deanna and Sidney Wolk say their generous gift will help make ‘the Memory Center’ available to anybody who needs it.”

A Dorchester native and his wife have donated $5 million to help those battling dementia and Alzheimer’s under the auspices of the Hebrew SeniorLife Center in Roslindale. The contribution will help the non-profit assist seniors and their caregivers through the newly renamed Deanna and Sidney Wolk Center for Memory Health, an outpatient center next to the Arnold Arboretum that is affiliated with Harvard Medical School.

“We want people to know about the program, to use it. We want to be able to help them in their needs,” said Sidney Wolk, who grew up in a family of modest means near Fields Corner. As a child, he said, he was taught the importance of “tzedakah,” the Hebrew word for charitable giving.

“Growing up, we never owned a house or a car, but we always put money aside. Whatever coins you had at night had to go to help those less fortunate,” said Wolk. “It’s held true to this very day. We’re just lucky to be able to help people and this is a great cause.” 

Wolk has fond memories of his early life in Dorchester, where he worked as a newspaper hawker and attended Boston Latin School. “It was fun. We had a large family within a ten-block radius for support,” he said. “My dad was a plumber who came over from the old country and when the union had work, there was a week’s pay and when there wasn’t, I would take the subway down to Seaver Street and Columbia Road and sell newspapers starting at six in the morning, then leave and go to Latin School, making two different trips. It was a great area, and we never knew we were poor because life was good, and you did your best.”

His wife Deanna, a Peabody native and a long-time volunteer at Hebrew SeniorLife, has seen first-hand the quality of service that the organization provides. “Growing up in Peabody, I was a farm girl compared to Dorchester,” she said with a laugh. “I got involved at the center when one of my friends invited me to go and volunteer. We played games with the residents and helped out, and as time went on, I became more involved. The residents really get very good care there and the staff pay attention to their specific needs.” 

Although the center is not taking volunteers at this time due to pandemic restrictions, the Wolks said that the center’s staff has continued to provide essential services and virtual one-on-one counselling sessions for patients and their family members. 

Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, the center’s medical director, is a senior scientist at the Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research at Hebrew SeniorLife and a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

“He has devoted his whole life to studying this, and he’s building a staff at Harvard Medical School to help residents at the center, as well as developing programs to assist their loved ones,” said Wolk.  “Given today’s world and how rampant dementia and all of the related problems are, this program is very important, and it has changed lives.” 

The stigma that sometimes surrounds mental health and dementia should not be a barrier for people who need quality and life-changing medical care, said Deanna Wolk. “For so many people that I know, the caregiver tries to hide it, or they’re not upfront about it. It is not a shame to have this disease and we want people to know that the doctors that are running this program are very much interested in helping patients and families. The Memory Center is available to anybody who needs it.” 

Hebrew SeniorLife also has a new helpline for anyone with questions about the disease or services available: 617-363-8600.

The $5 million contribution from the Wolk Foundation is the latest it has made to support a wide range of causes and organizations. Past recipients of significant gifts include Hebrew SeniorLife, Boston Latin School, Greater Boston Food Bank, and agencies who support the blind.

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