Daniel Ari Mendelson, M.D.

New geriatrician in charge of medical services at Jewish Senior Life: ‘I honestly don’t think the industry is ever going to be the same again after the pandemic’

By Chris Motola

Q: What brought you to your new position with Jewish Senior Life?
A: I went to college, medical school and residency in Rochester, so I’d been familiar with Jewish Senior Life for a long time. I got interested in geriatrics during medical school and grew that interest as resident. The doctor who got me into geriatrics, he’s since passed away, Dr. Rocco Vivenzio. Rocco was a doctor’s doctor. He was the director of two small nursing homes. I started getting medical direction right out of fellowship at one of those smaller nursing homes.

Over the years I’ve done medical direction at Highland Hospital and Monroe Community Hospital. Along that path I remained very active in the Jewish community. I was past president of our temple, and have a daughter who is a cantor, and a number of good friends who are rabbis. So it’s been a big part of my sense of community. So I was actually on the Jewish Senior Life board and a member of the quality committee. I was impressed with the work that they did, and the previous medical directors were mentors of mine. I’ve spent most of my career at the University of Rochester in leadership positions, but I wasn’t really expecting this position to come up within my time frame, but the timing turned out to be very good. My kids are done with school. The pandemic has really made me take stock of things I’d been thinking about, and it just turned out to be a really good time to make a change. A lot of my work at the university has required a lot of travel all over the world, which has been a great experience, but I’m really looking forward to spending the next part of my career focusing on my own community here at home.

Q: Since it was a factor in your decision, how would you say Jewish values influence the position?
A: I think it’s in the Jewish values. I’m part of the reform movement, and one of our values is tikkun olam, which meaning “healing the world.” I take that very personally. Being able to make the world a little bit of a better place by helping the most vulnerable is extraordinarily rewarding and meaningful. I think my Jewish identity and Jewish values are a driving force in making those sacrifices for other people, and being present for those residents, for those patients.

Q: It’s a particularly challenging to run any medical institution, but nursing homes in particular. What kinds of impacts are your seeing?
A: There’s been no part of healthcare more impacted by COVID than long-term care. The elderly are by far the most vulnerable. While they make up a small fraction of the population, they make up a huge fraction of deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-related illness. So it’s very present and on the forefront. It’s a serious and dangerous illness for the folks we care for.

Q: How do you balance protecting their health from the virus with their social needs, especially since isolation and loneliness can be such a big issue for seniors?
A: It’s a tremendously difficult problem, trying to balance the science and what’s best for the individual. We’ve had patients who have died because of COVID, but not due to COVID. I had a patient I was very close to; the social isolation of the lockdown really affected his ability to engage in life, and I think he just disengaged and faded away. I think of this as a COVID-related death even if he didn’t die from the virus. So I’m very cognizant of that. At the same time, when you see COVID sweep through a nursing home with half the residents being infected, and many passing away or being hospitalized, it’s a very difficult balance to strike. I think it’s one of those things where there isn’t a clear right answer. That’s where the team approach, which is one of things I really like about Jewish Senior Life, comes into play. So it’s not entirely up to us, but we provide a medical voice to weigh in on some of the realities and try to find the best way to protect our patients while maintaining their quality of life. I hope to be able to continue that tradition.

Q: What kind of long-term impact do you want to have on Jewish Senior Life?
A: I honestly don’t think the industry is ever going to be the same again after the pandemic. Nursing homes have gotten more attention, and I think people have a greater sense of how hard and important the work is. Hopefully that will be helpful at the legislative level and we’ll get the support we need. Health care in general is suffering from staffing issues right now, particularly in the nursing workforce. What we do is very hands-on. It requires people to care for people. The shortage in nursing is very palpable. I think, because the quality of care and quality of work life at Jewish Senior Life is so good, we’ve had less problems than others, but it’s still a challenge to keep quality staff to care for everybody.

Q: What can you do to help retention and avoid burnout?
A: One of the important things is simply having enough people. When people work extra shifts, it’s hard for them to recharge their batteries. The work is very intense, both from a physical standpoint and from an emotional standpoint, so people really need to get their breaks. When they’re short-staffed it’s hard to do that. If you’re short-staffed, workloads are too high, and that causes burnout. The other things that can cause burnout is feeling like you aren’t being appreciated or aren’t doing meaningful work, or don’t have a sense of control over their life. I think they’ve done a good job of making sure the staff has a voice in how they work, and in realizing how much work everyone is doing. The little ways that Jewish Senior Life has always shown appreciation to the staff, I think, goes a long way. At the end of the day it’s nice to be in a leadership position, but the work happens on the floor, at the side of a resident.


Name: Daniel Ari Mendelson, M.D.
Position: Vice president of medical services and chief medical officer at Jewish Senior Life
Education: RIT, University of Rochester
Career Highlights: Co-founded the Geriatric Fracture Center at Highland Hospital, as well as the UR Medicine Geriatrics Group (originally Strong Health Geriatrics Group). Also was the founder of the Highland Hospital Geriatrics Palliative Care Clinic
Family: Married, two daughters
Hobbies: Scuba diving, baking sourdough, training dogs (current dog is a B-student)