Bernice Soffer, 91, a social worker who became a powerful voice for Philadelphia’s elderly after she founded an organization to protect their rights, died Friday, June 29, of leukemia at her West Chester home.
Mrs. Soffer broke new ground when she created what is now called CARIE, the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly in 1979. She went on to build it into a model for the nation.
Initially, the Philadelphia group consisted of Mrs. Soffer, its executive director, and several volunteers who advocated on behalf of nursing-home patients and other vulnerable older adults.
“We do a lot in an area that doesn’t get much attention — the physically abused, the financially exploited, and the socially neglected,” she told the Daily News in 1988.
By the time she retired in 1995, the agency had grown to encompass 22 employees and program offerings including an elder-abuse help line and training for nurse’s aides and nursing-home staff responsible for patient care. The center at 1500 John F. Kennedy Boulevard also had become a strong force in setting public policy at the state level.
“Bernice has always been a happy warrior willing to do whatever was needed to bring the problems of our most needy elderly to the attention of regulators and the public,” said Ronald Costen, a deputy in the state Attorney General’s Office when she retired. “We need more people like Bernice Soffer.”
Known for her straightforward opinions and her ability to see problems in elder care before they occurred, Mrs. Soffer predicted that the retirement of baby boomers would increase the need for senior services and protections.
‘”We know there will be a huge boom in the aged population not long from now,” she told the Inquirer in 1995. “Are we sitting down and planning where they will live, what help they will need? No, we will wait for a crisis, will react quickly, and it won’t be a good or rational response.”
Mrs. Soffer saw the quality of America’s treatment of the aged as linked to economics, something she viewed as unfair.
“Being old in our society means losing your value,” she said. “When you add to old age a disability, or the need for expensive care, then society really doesn’t want to hear from you … unless, of course, you have money.”
Since 1995, the center has built on Mrs. Soffer’s legacy, said Diane A. Menio, the current executive director.
“The organization is strong. We are strong because of the foundation she laid here. When she started in 1979, there was no playbook. I had [a playbook]. She created something that really resonated,” Menio said. “I had the honor of working with her for six years before she retired. I can’t imagine how I would have done this job without her mentoring.”
Born in Philadelphia to Charles and Mollie Cohen, Russian immigrants, Mrs. Soffer graduated from Overbrook High School, Antioch College, and Temple University, where she earned a master’s degree in social work.
Because of her expertise in elder issues, she was recruited to serve on the board of directors for Martins Run Life Care Community in Media and the Adult Day Care / Chester County.
She lived in Overbrook Park, Havertown, and Center City before moving to Hershey’s Mill. She was married to Walter Goldstein. They divorced, and he died in 1982. She married Dr. Leon Soffer, deputy commissioner of health under Philadelphia Mayor Frank L. Rizzo. Dr. Soffer died in 2005.
While at Hershey’s Mill, an over-55 community, she was founder of the Hershey’s Mill Knitting and Crafts group and organizer of the Violette De Mazia Foundation, which sponsored art courses for residents. She starred on a local cable channel conducting interviews for broadcast to the Hershey’s Mill community.
Mrs. Soffer enjoyed gardening, calligraphy, travel, and writing.
She is survived by sons Benjamin Soffer and Elliott G. Soffer, daughter Edna (Eddie) Goldstein Soffer, a granddaughter, and a sister.
A memorial service will be at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, July 8, at the Joseph Levine & Sons Memorial Chapel, 2811 West Chester Pike, Broomall. Burial will be private.
Memorial donations may be made to the Bernice Soffer Endowment Fund for CARIE via https://www.carie.org/donate/.