Minister Gamliel unveils exit strategy for Israel’s senior citizens

Head of project ‘Protect our Fathers and Mothers’ says nursing homes face acute budget, staffing challenges due to coronavirus.

Gila Gamliel at a weekly cabinet meeting, March 10th, 2019 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Gila Gamliel at a weekly cabinet meeting, March 10th, 2019
People over the age of 67 should be allowed to leave their homes too, according to Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel. She submitted an exit strategy for Israel’s senior citizens to the Health Ministry and National Security Council on Wednesday night.
“I am fighting to allow veteran citizens to integrate back into their jobs and to return to their vital life routines,” Gamliel said. “It makes no sense to imprison 800,000 senior citizens who are defined as healthy and active.”
Gamliel put together a team of academic and medical professionals who formulated a set of recommendations that are expected to be discussed by the government next week.
There are 100,000 people over the age of 67 in Israel, she said, and 80% of them are healthy and able-bodied. Gamliel’s plan recommends that these people fill out a health questionnaire and get checked by their primary care physician. If their doctor approves, they will be granted permission to leave their homes and go to work at the same level as the rest of society.  
Similar to businesses that receive a “purple ribbon” certifying they are adhering to the Health Ministry’s regulations and are therefore allowed to operate, these older people would be granted a “green ribbon” status that is valid for up to a year.
The seniors would be required to update the Health Ministry if there has been any change to their health status.
Gamliel’s plan explains that isolation and solitude, as well as lack of physical activity, could be equally as detrimental to these citizens’ mental and physical health as the coronavirus.  
“I will not let the Health Ministry take the easy way out,” she said.
Gamliel’s plan comes on the heels of a plan for Israel’s oldest and sickest population, the 90,000 senior citizens in nursing homes and assisted-living centers, of which more than 60 have died from the novel coronavirus so far.
On Thursday, Ronni Gamzu, CEO of Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv – who developed the “Protect our Fathers and Mothers” plan – explained to the Knesset Coronavirus Committee the challenges the country faces in this arena. He said that the nursing homes are diverse, ranging from geriatric rehabilitation centers to medical and mental institutions to sheltered housing, and that the manpower in these institutions is often very diverse and even weak.
“There were [coronavirus] outbreaks, and communication between the Health Ministry and the institution was not always fast enough,” Gamzu explained.
He said that a key component of his plan is that management of the senior center crisis is now being managed by one government body.
“We created one headquarters and the people who work there are seniors and have authority over their subject matter,” he said.
Gamzu said that he has full authority to make decisions and only needs to check either with Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov or his deputy Itamar Grotto when he wants to implement a new program.
“It’s working and functioning,” he said. “It has been very efficient.”
But he said that the country is not out of the water when it comes to its seniors. For one thing, the country earmarked a small budget to help support senior living facilities through the coronavirus crisis, but it appears that amount is not enough.
“You need an organized budget for these institutions so that they don’t have to give up certain services because of budget problems,” said Dr. Orian Itzhaki, who represented the family members of senior citizens in these homes. She noted that since the country reduced public transportation, the centers are now forced to pay large sums to transport staff to the facilities, which is only adding to the challenge.
Gamzu said that next week he will be meeting with the heads of many of these facilities to better understand what kinds of funds are needed and he hopes to create a better financing structure.
In addition, there continues to be a staffing crisis. He confirmed that the government was able to greenlight a number of new foreign workers to fill the staffing void and that they are looking into removing the foreign worker tax that companies pay during the period of coronavirus.
The Health Ministry has managed to increase the number of seniors being tested daily to around 3,000, which Gamzu said was the right number. But he said it still takes too long to get people tested when there is suspicion of infection.
He said he is working on getting testing kits and trained personnel into each senior living facility to ensure that tests can be taken and processed in real time.
Other parts of the 10-point plan include the establishment of isolated beds in geriatric rehabilitation centers for sick residents, additional protective equipment, and emotional support to combat the impact of isolation and reduced social activities.
MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid-Telem) called the situation in Israel’s nursing homes “hell” and said that it is one of the most painful demonstrations of how the coronavirus has been handled in Israel until now.