Women, wellness and goodwill

An innovative program raises health awareness among senior women in the Katamonim and Pat – many of whom have never worked or exercised.

Senior women 520 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Senior women 520
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At first glance, you couldn’t tell the difference between a regular activity for seniors and the gathering taking place at the Hoffman Center in the Katamonim. But a difference there is or, as one of the women says, “This is not just a nice moment spent with friends in a club, this has become the spice of my life.”
Esther Cohen and the other 20 women sitting in the large room of the center are part of an innovative program launched three years ago by Prof. Neri Laufer, the head of The Patricia and Russell Fleischman Women’s Health Center at Hadassah Medical Center.
The philosophy behind the project is to raise health awareness for senior women in the community.
Two neighborhoods were chosen for the startup: Katamonim and Pat.
The program, run by two nurses and a social worker, led by a representative from Hadassah, is based on volunteer work. Women aged 60 and over, from all neighborhoods in the city who are already involved in activities in their community centers, were trained to run the program. Then they were sent to look for appropriate candidates – women who do not work and have not been active outside their homes over the years. Basically, the trained volunteers find women over 60 and enroll them in the program. It consists of various activities, four days a week, all focused on preventing health problems connected to their age and the lack of activity, both physical and mental.
Some of the women may already have some health problems, which are monitored by their own physicians. The program does not interfere with that but offers guidelines and access to healthy habits, such as walking and a healthy diet, as well as cognitive and social skills.
Overseeing the 350 women participants and 74 volunteers, there are four staff members.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a beautiful community and empowering work done,” says Dr. Maya Choshen of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, who has been providing academic and research support to the project since its inception.
Choshen says that the health awareness raised among the participants is important, as is the interaction between the women and the volunteers.
Many of the volunteers are well-educated women who had successful professional careers, while many of the women from Katamonim and Pat had never worked outside the home. The relationship they form is touching, bridging socioeconomic gaps and adding new dimensions such as women’s solidarity.
Nili Hameiri is in her mid-60s. For years she was an editor and director of youth programs at Israel Radio. Today, with the same energy she had for her broadcasts, Hameiri is working with women she says she otherwise would never have met.
“We’re not doing any kind of schooling here,” she explains. “I’m not here to teach anyone but to give support to women who have taken a step aimed at their own benefit. The whole concept is based on equality and women’s solidarity, and it works wonderfully.”
Tal Atzmon is a social worker who coordinates the team and the participants on behalf of Hadassah. “Most of the credit should first go to Prof. Laufer, who is a strong believer in the community’s power to improve the health of women and, above all, awareness about their health, especially connected to aging, lack of physical exercise and poor nutrition. Credit is also due to the full support we received from the Legacy Foundation, which made it possible through a generous grant.”
Forty-five women, all still active in the program, took the first training course, which was soon followed by another one on the heels of its success.
Atzmon says that soon other neighborhoods will join Katamonim and Pat.
While a major part of the program takes place in the community center, sometimes volunteers will visit women who are housebound and help them do a minimum of physical exercise. With the help and support of the volunteers, the women can develop a program that suits their habits and taste, while the professional staff ensures that all the selected activities help to promote good health, both mental and physical.
What’s more, many of the women in the program discover after a while that they have a lot of power, simply by the fact that they are taking independent steps for themselves, explains Atzmon. “After the first stage, when they receive the attention and care from the volunteers, many of them decide to take another step forward. We call it empowerment.
They take their lives in hand through their health and then, by becoming volunteers themselves, they go out and seek other women they can help.”
The women organize walking groups in the neighborhoods. They invite lecturers to talk to them about good nutrition and new recipes. They hear lectures about the need to keep their brains active through various activities. At the center, they have sessions of games – they do jigsaw puzzles, make masks for Purim or decorate simple handicrafts.
“Sometimes,” says Tami Sharf, a retired psychologist who graduated from the first training course, “a woman who at first was afraid to do a 20-piece jigsaw puzzle now works on a 50- or 80-piece puzzle.
You can see the effort she puts into it.
Sometimes she encounters difficulties, but once she has started, she won’t stop or give up. It’s pure oxygen for the brain.”
On the day I visit the center, the women, under the gentle supervision of Ellen Lefark, an artist who has dedicated one day a week to the program since its beginning, are busy preparing artistic masks for Purim. “What at first glance may look like a simple task is actually carefully planned to increase their cognitive skills. It’s not just paper and colors – they have to think about what they want to do, to choose a style, to match the colors and the fabrics they use – and at the same time, it’s fun,” she says.
Rivka has a sad look in her eyes, but she is willing to answer my questions.
“I have been through very sad events in my life,” she says.
But then she attempts a shy smile and adds, “When I come here, I can forget a little bit and focus on what I do. It makes me feel much better; it gives me strength.”
For Cohen, things are even clearer: “I took care of my family, my children my husband, never thought about myself. So now it’s my time: my health, my life. I’ve learned to wear sports shoes so I can walk, and it’s healthy for me. I meet people, we talk – it makes my brain work.”
Shlomit says it’s not easy for her to come, but she won’t miss a session. And her neighbor, Eti Levy, stresses that the first thing she did upon coming back home from two weeks in the hospital was to return to the program. “I missed above all the game sessions and the sports we do here. I can’t do without them anymore.”
Ora, one of the two nurses in the program, says that in a way it’s the same old story everywhere. Women dedicate their lives to their families, but once the children grow up and leave home, and all too often the husband dies, they are left alone without any experience of living an independent life. “But that’s not our main purpose. We are interested in the health aspects of the situation. If a woman stays home all day sitting front of the TV and doesn’t walk, doesn’t think, doesn’t speak to anyone and doesn’t pay attention to what she is eating, there is no way that her health will not deteriorate.
But there is no reason for that to happen, and it could be otherwise.”