Wise beyond his years

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Judah Ronch, Ph.D., Dean, Erickson School, University of Maryland Baltimore County
Judah Ronch, Ph.D., Dean, Erickson School, University of Maryland Baltimore County

Although he is one of the preeminent leaders in the field of aging, at least one of his friends says Judah Ronch is an under-recognized architect of nursing homes' culture change movement.

“He is one of the silent giant types,” says William Thomas, M.D., co-founder of the Eden Alternative. “There would be no Eden Alternative without Judah Ronch. Judah is my mentor. He is the person I call when I'm stuck.”

Ronch grew up as the only child of a poet father who immigrated from Poland and a secretary mother, in a walk-up apartment across from a park in New York City. 

“A lot of people in my generation, we didn't have a lot, but we had a happy childhood,” he remembers. “We grew up in a city full of immigrants who worked very hard to give their kids a better life than they had.”

At 16, Ronch went to Hunter College (CUNY) and kept going. He earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Yeshiva University and did post-doctoral work in development linguistics, language and speaking. He also taught at Vassar College. 

“It was a big transition when I left New York City and found out the rest of the world wasn't the Bronx,” he jokes.

Tragedy hit in 1972, when his mother and grandparents died in a car accident. His father moved to California, and Ronch went to Florida three years later to work at a division of the Miami Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged. 

“My first day at work there was a conference for what we then called ‘organic brain syndrome,'” he said. “An older woman had dementia and she couldn't answer much about what month it was.”

But the woman could answer when she translated “months” into Hebrew, he recalls.

“I was Yiddish and English bilingual, and I thought, ‘Maybe people with dementia have these hidden assets that nobody knows.'” That began an interest in studying those who have dementia.

In 1977, Ronch decided to head back to New York. During his years in private practice in Poughkeepsie, Ronch consulted for nursing homes as well as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Books such as 2003's “Mental Wellness and Aging” drew attention, he says.

“I built an academic resume without planning to,” he muses. 

Nearly a decade ago, that paid off when Erickson Retirement Communities reached out and hired him as the vice president of resident life, mental health and wellness. 

“I shut down my practice and I was glad to do it,” he says. “I had done therapy for 30 years. The timing was right.”

Ronch, his wife, Robin, and their six dogs moved to Edgewater, MD, in 2004. Two years later, he became a professor at University of Maryland Baltimore County's Erickson School.

Now down to one dog — a 10-year-old rescued mini-schnauzer named Peppermint Patty —Ronch, 68, says he and his wife enjoy traveling to Sanibel Island in Florida. 

Professionally, Ronch says he has been inspired by the poet David White, who discusses work as a pilgrimage of identity.

“You don't work to affirm your identity,” Ronch says. “You affirm your identity and the right work shows up.”