The long journey home

Some North Americans who made aliya in the 1970s are facing the challenge of moving their aging parents to Israel.

At one point in the parent/child relationship, things will change. For a growing number of families, a child will become the guardian of aging parents. The situation can be especially difficult if an aging parent lives in a different country and continent. The Jewish Agency says that as the wave of North Americans who immigrated to Israel in the 1970s becomes older, olim are finding complicated challenges in what to do with the parents they left behind in the US and Canada - especially when the parents are no longer able to take care of themselves. Such was the case with David Klein (not his real name) originally from Toronto, who made aliya 20 years ago with his wife and three children. After years of trying, Klein managed to get his elderly parents to move to Israel earlier this month, and they are now settled into a retirement community in Kfar Shmaryahu. "It was the most difficult week of my life," says Klein, who lives in Kfar Saba. "My parents didn't like the first retirement residence we went to look at because it felt too much like a nursing home. The second one would not accept them because the home didn't think my parents were independent enough. On their seventh day in Israel, we drove out to a retirement home that accommodates people at different levels. They have been there for several days now, have made friends with people who have similar Polish backgrounds, and speak Yiddish with the staff. My parents are eating three nutritious meals a day, and there's a doctor and a physiotherapist on the premises," he says. Klein's parents are settling into life in Israel. But when he had gone to Toronto in late December, he found his parents, both in their mid-eighties, in a crisis. "They were living on their own, but my father's health had taken a turn for the worse," says Klein, who describes his parents as stubbornly independent and feisty Holocaust survivors. Prior to Klein's visit and for the past several years, his parents had resisted any suggestion of moving to a retirement home or accepting live-in help in Toronto or elsewhere. This year things were different. His father was suffering from Alzheimer's and if action wasn't taken quickly, Klein knew it would only be a matter of time until his father would be hospitalized, possibly against his will. "My mother and father were refusing the idea of leaving the sanctuary of their home in Toronto that had sheltered them for five decades after arriving on Canadian soil as refugees - penniless, friendless, stateless and without family." Earlier in their lives, Klein's parents had dreamt of living in Israel but were denied immigration by the British Mandate. "One of their treasured possessions is a photograph taken of their Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth group in the 1930s in Poland, in which they both appear - though they were not yet boyfriend and girlfriend," says Klein. "Whether they grasped it or not, Israel loomed ahead of them as a safe and secure haven." After intense negotiations with his parents and their eventual agreement, Klein set out to make arrangements with the Israel Aliya Center in Toronto, a procedure he thought would be swift and easy. "I was wrong," he says. Many quick decisions had to be made, and Klein felt that the clerk handling his case was unsympathetic to his special circumstances. Dina Gidron, the regional director of the Israel Aliya Center for Central and Western Canada, explained that making aliya is a stressful process. "The trauma of making aliya is really hard," says Gidron, who agrees that Jewish Agency emissaries usually have the best grasp of oft-changing Israeli governmental policies. It is not unusual, she says, that people working for the government will contact emissaries to know the latest updates and rights for new immigrants. Gidron says that the Klein's case was not something she was used to seeing. "Without family support," she notes. "I would not recommend that seniors move to Israel." Those who do make aliya are entitled to the same benefits as anyone else. Seniors can receive an absorption basket of about NIS 16,000, a free plane ticket, a waiver of customs' fees and taxes, free Hebrew classes and medical insurance for six months. Wendy Keter, the Midwest regional director of the Jewish Agency's Israel Aliya Center based in Chicago, has become the North American expert on helping ailing and frail seniors make aliya. She has a wealth of professional experience in helping seniors know about rights and services when they make aliya. A trained social worker originally from Philadelphia, Keter has worked for 30 years in geriatric and service development in Israel. Before working for the Jewish Agency, she worked for municipalities in Israel and later became the director of a home healthcare organization. In 1999, with the backing of her family, Keter decided to move her Philadelphia-based mother, afflicted with Alzheimer's, to Israel. Keter found an apartment close to her home in Rehovot for her mother, who was able to receive supervised 24-hour home care. "At that time, my mother fulfilled her lifelong dream without fully knowing it," she says. Although, some of her mother's savings were used to cover expenses, social security and other government resources helped the shekels stretch. "Money goes much farther in Israel than it could go in the US," attests Keter, who estimates that the quality care her mother received in Israel cost one-third of what it would in the US. Keter also thinks that Israelis are kinder to the elderly than Americans may be; she doesn't think her mother would have been given the same treatment had she remained in Philadelphia. "The people in the local grocery store in Israel set aside a chair for my mother on which to rest while her caretaker shopped for groceries. They would give her cookies and flowers for Shabbat." A year and a half ago, Keter was sent by the Jewish Agency to work in the US. At that time, her mother returned with her to Chicago but passed away four months ago. In the past years, Keter has helped dozens of families bring their aging parents to Israel. "I tell them my story and sit and cry with them," she says, adding that her experience gives people the belief that they can do it, too. THE FIRST steps a family should take, says Keter, involves speaking with experts and engaging in as much preplanning as possible. After liaising with their local Jewish Agency, people should be in contact with local social services in Israel, their local National Insurance office and a healthcare organization. The Association for the Planning and Development of Services for the Aged in Israel (ESHEL) also can provide a lot of preliminary information. The National Insurance can provide a nursing grant, a basket of home healthcare services for those who qualify, says Keter. There is a worldwide trend to provide home healthcare services; since 1985, these services have been progressive in Israel. After initial research, families should look into the services provided by such organizations as Hadassah; the Women's International Zionist Organization (WIZO); and the Association for Americans and Canadians Living in Israel (AACI). Housing options depend on individual needs, preferences and circumstances. "Some people can move to villages to be close to their children," she says, noting that it is worth looking into special services made available through a local municipality before making any big decisions. "People usually find out about services only in a time of crisis. At that point, one cannot think logically. Even though your parents might not agree, it is important that they hear from their children that they are being thought about. You never know when there is going to be a switch in the parent-child role," says Keter, who believes in encouraging people to stay in their community for as long as one is able. Newer organizations like Nefesh B'Nefesh (NBN) are recognizing the need to cater services toward aging olim. The organization works alongside the Jewish Agency to help North Americans realize the dream of aliya through financial assistance and other benefits. "NBN recognizes that pre-retirees and retirees have specific aliya needs, and we are interested in helping this population," says Doreet Freedman, director of Pre-Aliya. She adds, "We have noticed an increase in interest from parents of olim who wish to join their children. There are also older individuals who feel that they are finally able to actualize their Zionist dreams but are wary of the bureaucratic red tape, nervous about the healthcare system, unaware of residency options and concerned about financial/taxation implications." To accommodate the growing interest in aliya by the senior population, NBN is offering pre-aliya informational seminars for the senior populations in New York and New Jersey on March 5. Hiring a retirement facilitator to mitigate some of the anxiety caused by running between various governmental offices could be a wise move, says Freedman. Despite the growing number of services catering to the aging olim, over the last month in Israel Klein has found the bureaucracy on the Israeli side to be unfathomable. However, he points out, volunteer facilitators such as Susan from the AACI have made the experience bearable. "When we arrived at Ben-Gurion airport, worn out after the long flight, the last thing we wanted to do was be whisked away to the aliya processing office to do all kinds of paperwork," says Klein. "The fact that Susan was there to chat with my parents and answer questions is representative of the best that Israel has to offer. She and her colleagues are what good old Eretz Yisrael is all about - Israel's finest face. Because of people like her, it's all worthwhile." For more information, contact The Jewish Agency in Chicago: 1-847-674-8861; AACI: (02) 566-1181 ext 305; Nefesh B'Nefesh: (02) 659-5700;