Dr. Leon Kalson, an expert in the field of geriatrics and, for years, the president of the Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged of Pittsburgh, died Tuesday, June 14, just three days shy of his 90th birthday.
For years, Kalson, was an authoritative figure in the field of geriatric care, especially in the Jewish community.
During his tenure at the JHHA, which lasted from 1954 to 1977, Kalson became instrumental in the expansion of the facility, including construction of Riverview Apartments (what would be known as Riverview Towers) — a center of independent and assisted living for Jewish seniors, which opened in 1965.
“Riverview was the first [facility] of its kind in the United States,” said Kalson’s wife, Beverly Gerber-Kalson. Prior to its groundbreaking, she said her husband visited Denmark to study innovative programs in Scandinavia for housing and care of seniors.
According to a 1964 Chronicle story, the Riverview project, which was heavily subsidized by a $1.3 million federal loan through the then-United Jewish Federation, was a response to a Federation study that concluded many institutionalized seniors could live independently with special housing.
The JHHA provided a long-term, rent-free lease for the site for the new apartments, located off Browns Hill Road.
Kalson also was credited for introducing special therapy programs for the severely disabled and the kosher Meals on Wheels program. He also developed a social interaction program — the Mutual Association for Self-Help (M*A*S*H) — that linked residents from different facilities.
“He (Kalson) wasn’t just looking at dollars and cents,” said Sylvia Busis, a former Riverview board member, “he was looking at concepts of caring for an important segment of the population. I certainly looked up to him and respected him.”
Gerber-Kalson recalled how her husband would make unannounced visits to the hospital during off hours, just to see if everything was running right.
“If he saw any elderly person being abused,” she recalled, “that person [responsible] was gone.”
Kalson also delved into therapeutic treatment for clients and residents not necessarily diagnosed with depression, but who experienced loneliness or detachment. In a 1965 article in the journal Geriatrics, he described a two-year-old pilot program at JHAA that used group therapy and discussion to treat what Kalson called “the new breed” of residents he was seeing.
“The new breed we refer to are people who are more Americanized,” he said in the interview, “more intellectual, more sensitive to ideas in depth, and more educated formally or self-taught.”
He said he didn’t see such treatment as psychotherapy. “It is, however, an opportunity much needed by a particular kind person for self-expression and self-fulfillment.”
Kalson also used his time at the JHHA to go back to school at the University of Pittsburgh and earn his doctorate in rehabilitation in 1976. When he finally left the JHHA in 1977, he entered private practice as a consulting psychologist. He also lectured at Pitt and led discussion groups as part of the Great Books Society.
A 1939 graduate of Peabody High School, Kalson served in the South Pacific as a pharmacist mate 1st class in the Navy during World War II. He returned home after the war, married Miriam Smith Kalson of Pittsburgh (who died in 1995) and entered college at Pitt where he later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology. He retired in 2005.
Prior to his tenure at JHHA, Kalson worked for the United Vocational Employment Service of B’nai B’rith, which assisted Jewish refugees from the war, from 1949 to 1953.
In addition to his second wife, Beverly Gerber-Kalson, he is survived by his children, Arthur Kalson and Catherine Bremer of San Francisco; David Kalson and Tracy (Tashman) Kalson of Rye, N.Y.; Cheryl Kalson and Karl Alsnauer of San Francisco; his grandchildren, Aryn Kalson (Tom) Sperandio of Calgary, Canada; Shana Kalson of New York City; Ruby Kalson-Bremer, Evan Alsnauer and Molly Alsnauer, all of San Francisco; his great-grandchildren, Lila Jane Miri Kalson-Sperandio of Calgary; his stepchildren, Jerry (Ashley) Gerber, Eric (Kimberly) Gerber and Risa (Michael) Angelo; stepgrandchildren, Michael, Samuel and Jonathon Angelo, David and Devon Gerber, and Alaizia Gerber.
Contributions may be made to Mollies Meals division of Jewish Association on Aging, 200 JHF Drive, Pittsburgh, PA 15217.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)