Activists for elderly slam NII 'ageism'

Court asked to allow pensioners to decide for themselves when to retire.

It might seem unusual that someone in their 70s would want to help care for his elders, but for David Benivgy, 71, of Kiryat Bialik, working with seniors helps give meaning to his life, not to mention providing a welcome supplement to his state pension. Working as a caregiver for the Massad company for the past six years, Benivgy took people with limited mobility out for walks, assisted them with their shopping, made sure they took remembered to take their medicine and did household chores for them. More importantly, Benivgy was a caring companion for many very elderly people. "I was like a son for him," Benivgy said sadly as he began describing his relationship with one of his wards, 85-year-old Biton Raphael of Kiryat Yam. Benivgy helped him every week until last year, when he turned 70. Under a directive issued by the National Insurance Institute (NII) in 2002, caregivers must stop working when they turn 70. On Thursday, after three years of petitioning the NII, the Association of Law in the Service of the Elderly - a organization comprising lawyers and social workers that promotes the rights of older people via the judicial system - petitioned the High Court of Justice to overturn the NII directive and allow pensioners decide for themselves when to retire. According to a survey conducted by the JDC-Brookdale Institute in 2002, 93 percent of caregivers in Israel were older than 50 and 21% were over 61. The survey also found that more than half of caregivers were new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. "We want the NII to decide on a person-by-person basis whether someone is fit to continue working or not," said Karmit Shai, legal advisor for the Association. "If they have the physical strength to continue working in this profession then why should they stop? "These people are not physicians, they provide the elderly with basic services such as making sure they have food, helping them shower and other simple tasks around the house," she said. The NII said the directive was drafted together with the companies that provided these services to the elderly. A NII spokeswoman said, "If we are talking about sitting with an elderly person and drinking a cup of tea with them, than that is one thing, but at the age of 70 it is physically difficult to help someone take a shower, for example, or provide them with efficient care." She also said that if the caregiver had been with the client for a number of years and the family and the company that employed them gave written permission for the caregiver to continue, the NII would respect that decision. Benivgy said the directive was ageist, unfair and outdated. "The company I was working for would have let me continue working until I was 100," he said. "If my health was not good then I could understand, but that is not the issue here." Benivgy said that in addition to satisfaction he received from caring for those in need of help, the income - he worked only 170 hours a month - added NIS 2,500 a month to his basic pension. "Many pensioners want to continue working for financial reasons. The extra money is an essential addition to their monthly pension, which could be as low as NIS 1,100 a month if they have no extra allowances or a pension plan from their work," said Shai. "As we know, many of the caregivers are new immigrants and their pension is even lower than the minimum." One case cited in the High Court petition is that of an immigrant from the FSU who has to survive on NIS 400 a month. According to the Association's petition, there is a growing need for caregivers. Based on information published by the Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2004 there were more than 680,700 Israelis over the age of 65. By 2020, that number is expected to nearly double to 1,026,000. Incoming MK Ya'acov Ben-Yizri, No. 2 on the Gil Pensioners Party list, told The Jerusalem Post Sunday that this was one of the issues the party would tackle in the new Knesset. "It is still too early for me to say how we will address this issue," he said, "but the question of who will care for the elderly is one we intent to raise in the new Knesset." "There is no justice here," said Shai. "We hope this petition will change the situation. Why should someone's fitness for work be judged on the basis of age?" she asked.