The International Day for the Elderly, that is marked today, is an opportunity for us in Israel to take a good look at how we relate to and treat our most vulnerable community, the indigent elderly.
Judging by the endless TV and radio commercials promoting five-star retirement homes and the seemingly joyful and vivacious people living in them, one might think that paradise awaits us all when we retire. However, the facts show a much bleaker future for many Israelis.
Out of 800,000 elderly people living in Israel, 200,000 have no additional income other than the social security pension of NIS 2,700 a month per person or NIS 4,000 per couple they receive from the government. This sum must suffice to cover all their basic expenses such as shelter, food, healthcare, etc.
With the constantly soaring cost of living in Israel, these figures are merely a fraction of what is needed to live, let alone to live with dignity.
This has even been acknowledged as a fact by the National Insurance Institute.
In fact, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the average sum that an elderly person needs to live on per month in Israel is NIS 6,226, almost double the maximum stipend an elderly person receives.
In conversations we hold regularly with social workers in charge of helping poor elderly, we hear that the real number of elderly in need is actually much higher than the official statistics. For example, there are thousands more people with an income that is higher than the poverty line but with much greater expenses due to illness, the need for expensive medication, house care, etc.
As a result, there are thousands of cases of elderly living in dire poverty but not included in the official statistics since they are technically above the poverty line. In my work, over the past years I have seen hundreds of examples of people who were forced to give up buying food, heating their apartments during the winter, and purchasing the medicines that they need because they simply did not have enough money and had to choose each day among these basic necessities.
These people, and thousands of others like them, suffer in silence, away from the public eye and the attention of politicians or media. They are often immigrants who don’t speak Hebrew well or people who are too weak or ill to take to the streets to demand better care.
It is often said that the strength of a chain is determined by its weakest link.
If we regard the condition of the elderly in Israel as a mirror reflecting our strength as a society, I’m afraid the image is less than encouraging, to say the least.
It is an outrageous situation that the elderly in Israel have been abandoned by us. These are people who came to Israel after surviving persecution under the Nazis, communism, or Arab dictatorships.
In addition, many of them fought in wars defending Israel, yet now they are victims of loneliness, abandonment and neglect.
Somewhere in the transition of Israeli society from socialism to modern capitalism we have forgotten those who sacrificed so much for the fulfillment of the Zionist dream; those whom we, as a people, are commanded to honor and show compassion toward – our mothers and fathers, grandparents and family.
BUT THE condition of elderly men and women in Israel is not just a moral issue; it poses a strategic threat to the strength of Israeli society and its viability for the future. The inability of today’s young families to purchase a home means that they will have the burden of paying rent at an older age. Indeed, the neediest elderly people today are, in fact, the ones who live in rented apartments on the free market. As the young people of today get older, their ability to work will diminish and their income will reduce accordingly. Meanwhile several expenses such as healthcare and housecare will rise. In the current job market, the chances of finding work after age 50 get slimmer while longevity keeps rising. As a result, more people are becoming dependent, and for a longer period of time, on meager government pensions that even now only meet 40 percent of their basic needs.
It is estimated that by 2030 the elderly population in Israel will rise from 10% of the population to 14%. It is imperative that we set a reasonable standard of living conditions for them and create a safety net of suitable pensions for the group of elderly in Israel whose wellbeing depends primarily on the government.
In the Jewish tradition, longevity is considered a blessing we wish for ourselves and our loved ones. However, in Israel 2013, old age is something many of us, regrettably, fear. We should feel ashamed as we look at the indignity of the situation of the 200,000 indigent helpless elderly, who once shouldered the burden of our nation’s building efforts and are currently living in distress, dependence and abject need.
Recently, as we observed the holiday of Yom Kippur, we fasted in order to atone for our sins and return to a path of righteousness. But the fasting alone is not enough. As it says in the Book of Isaiah, from which we read as the haftarah for Yom Kippur: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen... to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7).
This is the true moral obligation of both Israeli society as a whole and of each and every one of us as individuals.
We can do better. We must do better. It is a blemish on the soul of our nation; a “shande” we must rectify immediately.
The writer, a rabbi, is president of The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.