'Do not forget us when we grow old'

A societal shofar blast proclaims the rights of the aged: independence, participation, care, self-fulfillment and dignity.

October 1, 2006 01:11
3 minute read.
'Do not forget us when we grow old'

old man 88. (photo credit: )


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I was struck by the apt coincidence of the 16th International Day of Older Persons, celebrated annually on October 1, coinciding this year with Erev Yom Kippur. Picture the scene in your synagogue, here in Israel, on Yom Kippur Eve: The congregation has assembled and is reciting together the emotional words of Shma kolenu - "Hear our voice." Together, the congregation repeats aloud: "Have mercy on us and accept our prayers… Do not forget us when we grow old; when our strength fails, do not abandon us..." Outside, the sky is dark and the streets are quiet. In the apartment next door to the synagogue sits an older man, perhaps an aged immigrant from the FSU, or an elderly war veteran disabled from one of Israel's battles for survival. Maybe he finds it hard to handle the stairs; is worried he'll trip in the darkened street, or is simply too proud to show up, alone and frail, in a public gathering. So he remains, wrapped in loneliness, in his apartment. Even as we are praying for our own future and security in old age, how many of us are thinking of these isolated seniors? What practical measures has Israeli society taken to affirm the five basic rights of seniors, as listed in the United Nations Principles on Aging: independence, participation, care, self-fulfillment and dignity? ISRAEL HAS a fair track record in its care of institutionalized seniors, those in nursing homes, hospitals and the rare sheltered community - we have one of the lowest rates of institutionalization in the world, just 4.8% of all elderly. The overwhelming majority of our senior population wish to remain in their own homes and communities as long as possible. However, according to a startling survey taken by the Central Bureau of Statistics, 27% of seniors have no contact with friends, and 39.2% of respondents aged 65-74 - and 50.1% of those aged 75+ - feel lonely. This bleak summary of our older persons' lack of community should serve as a wake-up call, a societal shofar blast. Israeli society is youth-oriented, but our aged need to be remembered. They too have a future, and we are responsible for ensuring that it be a safe, secure and fulfilling one. THE HURDLES that face an old person living alone in Israel - particularly, but not exclusively, one of limited means - can be daunting. Public transportation is not elder-friendly, and often crowded. Government offices are spread across the city, often with long waiting lines, and clerks who lack the patience or sensitivity to deal with the elderly. Basic medical treatment is covered by the health funds, but eyeglasses, dentures and certain medications are not. Unlike their US peers, the majority of Israeli seniors, the generation that survived the Holocaust and literally built the State of Israel, are reluctant to attend a traditional seniors' center for fear of being patronized or viewed as emotionally or materially needy. So what can be done to reinforce our older population's desire to remain independent, but at the same time provide them with a dignified means of receiving all necessary care and the ability to participate and feel self-fulfilled? During my three decades at Ezrat Avot I have seen that it is not only the most desperately poor elderly who need our help, but also those who are merely starved for company and meaning in life, or who need a little practical back-up support to enable them to remain active. TO TRULY help Israel's seniors we need to look at them as individuals, as real people with emotions and feelings. That is why Ezrat Avot launched the senior-to-senior caring caregivers program to provide special meals-on-wheels answering the emotional and dietary needs of those suffering common senior chronic illnesses such as diabetes and cancer. We have also given priority to involving seniors in educating the wider community through a program that is spreading through schools across the country. Soon the foundation stone will be laid for what we believe will be a ultimate response to the specific needs of our aged. The Jerusalem Seniors Atrium will gather together all essential government, medical and social services needed by older persons under one roof, provide transportation to the center, and encourage seniors from all parts of the city, and beyond, to participate in an optional range of recreational and social activities in a dignified and customer-oriented atmosphere. On Yom Kippur we pray for our slate to be wiped clean so we can make a fresh start. This Erev Yom Kippur, on the 16th International Day of Older Persons, we have been given an extra reminder to take care of our seniors. For if we abandon them, what right do we have to ask for better treatment when we grow old? The writer is a past recipient of the Ministry of Welfare Award for Volunteerism and Co-Founder and Director of Ezrat Avot.

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