How to grow old in Israel

Here's what to do when you finally have the luxury and time to engage in a medley of activities.

 Illustrative photograph: Rochelle Gilbert and Helen Simpson learn to use an iPad. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Illustrative photograph: Rochelle Gilbert and Helen Simpson learn to use an iPad.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Everyone knows that old age is a time for cutting back, withdrawing from our social and vocational pursuits, taking it easy and basking in our memories. Correct? No, definitely no. Geriatric specialist Dr. Yakir Kaufman lectures that the worst thing an older person can do is to retire from an active, contributing life. People who do that decline quickly into illness, depression and even dementia, and he has studies to prove it.

Elders, whether newly retired, or well advanced into their 70s, 80s and even 90s can find many types of activities, suitable to their abilities and interests, to maintain their mental and physical health as well as making good use of their great treasure – more time. TIME is something we tend to waste as youngsters, and it seems to be endless, remember? Then when we’re adults, bringing up families, pursuing our jobs we’re always running after time, never finding enough of it to do all the things we need to do. 

Then come the golden years, when we’re able to retire, to “shep nachas” from the children and grandchildren but without the responsibility and need to provide for their needs, and we have the luxury to engage in a medley of possibilities. Here are just a few of them.


In Israel a whole generation of older people never finished their education, either because in their formative years they were persecuted, had to emigrate or go to work. There are many programs available to study as a retiree in a university, the most prevalent of which is called the Brookdale program. For a very minimum price an older person can take courses together with students and even get a degree. Their fellow students don’t always like having them in the classroom because they are so diligent, always handing in their assignments on time, asking pertinent questions, and getting outstanding grades on their tests. I know one elderly gentleman who over a period of 8 years, got a B.A. in history and archaeology, went on to get an M.A. over four more years and was thinking of going for a PhD when he passed away – a happy, aging scholar.


One of the greatest mitzvot in Judaism is learning Torah and so many religious men (and lately women also) have joined shiurim (classes) in Bible, Talmud, Jewish Philosophy and similar subjects, sometimes on a daily basis. There are Yeshivot for Pensioners around the country and they provide learning that at a younger age these participants could only dream of attaining.

Some older people engage in Kabbalah, mysticism or contemporary religions and one joker even claimed these subjects are especially attractive to this age group, for thereby they are cramming for the next step in life. But clearly a person often becomes more philosophical as he (she) looks back on past experiences, things they’ve learned from the School of Life and a broader outlook on living that they’ve achieved, which can lead to spiritualism engagement.


We all know a Grandma Moses, a renowned artist in the US who discovered her talent only in later life. Many courses in the arts are available for the older generation, who may now have the time and inclination to develop a predisposition for music, drawing, sculpture, drama, embroidery or painting. There is a dance assembly where all the women are over 80 and it is amazing to watch their performance. 

Literature is another field popular for the older generation. One publisher reported that more than half the books he’s asked to publish every year are written by pensioners. Many record their life story, and indeed almost every elderly citizen in Israel has a fascinating history to relate. Others can finally do scholarly research in subjects that have always interested them, record experiences they have personally had, or even produce novels and short stories. Book clubs are very popular with pensioners who gather periodically to review books they like.


All the latest studies in preventive measures in gerontology stress the importance of physical activities for retaining physical and cognitive health. Even if a person only takes up exercises or some sport at an advanced age his chances for remaining healthy are better than the couch potatoes it’s so easy to become. Therefore every club for seniors, sheltered housing, day care centers will include physical exercises, and even chair bound patients are encouraged to follow a routine that is gagged for their abilities. Many older people join a health club, engage in walking or running groups, play sport, swim or do aerobics, and feel all the better for it. 


There are many hobbies which become an avocation once a person has the time to develop it. There are pensioners who always liked to dabble and have actually developed patents for devices that help us all. Tinkers become handymen, knitters supply sweaters and winter goods to soldiers or their own grandchildren, photographers become the family event recorder and bookbinders are highly requested. Surely the reader knows many other examples of hobbies that make good use of one’s time.


In certain cases the needs of the family determine how the pensioners uses his/her time. When a spouse is ill or needs constant supervision the task of caregiver is cast upon elderly and takes up that treasure mentioned above, their time. How they accept this position depends on many factors, but social workers and doctors recommend that home bound caregivers nevertheless find a way to do something else than caring – even if it means engaging a paid worker to free them several hours from their caregiving, bringing in other family members or using day care placement so that they get away from the constant strain and worry for several hours every week.

A most pleasant family engagement is spending time with the grandchildren, and even grandfathers who never had time to play with their own children may now find it possible to play football or Monopoly with their offspring. It’s important, however, to make boundaries in the care and assistance with the third generation: not to be too involved in their discipline, not to be “on call” for babysitting if it becomes a source of resentment or curtailed self fulfillment.


Often it is a pensioners who will be Vaad HaBayit, who petitions the municipality to improve neighborhood cleanliness or fix the street pavements, who become active in a political party or serves on their synagogue committee. Why is that? Once again they are the ones who have time, fortitude in dealing with others, and life experience which can be of such benefit in community work.


There are pensioners who need to work and there are those who want to continue to do so. In the first instance where they need the income, there is a government program lately to provide work opportunities on a limited basis that are suitable for the elderly, including the hours and physical effort required. There is a branch in the social services to encourage employers to hire older workers both for their own benefit and for the worker’s benefit. The advantages of hiring an experienced worker, with good work ethics and motivation (he wants to work), who doesn’t take off for Army reserve duty or maternity leave, are explained and the worker’s desire to remain in the working world for his own self image and monetary gain make this too mutually beneficial.


What do you want to do when you’re no longer tied down to a job? This is a question we often ask ourselves long before we can activate our dreams. Many will choose this option, the opportunity to travel. This can translate into seeing other lands, joining group travel clubs, some organized especially for the elderly (when there’s no world wide Corona) or sailing on a cruise – for those with the means. But it can also include getting to know the country, participating in trips to historic or unknown corners in our land, doing the Israel Track whereby you trek from the northern tip of Israel to Eilat by foot but at your own pace.


There are innumerable opportunities to volunteer and this option is especially suitable to the pensioner generation: they have the experience, skill, time and inclination to be useful. They have the satisfaction of contributing in a meaningful way, of belonging to a team of other workers and volunteers, of maintaining a routine in their weekly schedule and of being appreciated. There are offices in the municipalities for placing volunteers, matching them with the right placement and seeing that they get integrated properly and there are recruiters in many institutions, schools and agencies to do the same. “Volunteerism is the ideal activity for the older generation,” said one such recruiter in a hospital which engages more than 250 older volunteers. “It’s a win-win situation.”

So there are many options for looking forward to becoming old, and many ways to use these years successfully. Of course there are impediments that can interfere with the “best laid plans of mice and men….” beginning with health issues, financial difficulties, family problems and just general mood. But Dr. Kaufman and all the experts assure us despite any handicaps, the more we aim to remain active and involved, even on a limited basis, the better our lives will be as we navigate the third and fourth stage in life. 

The writer is coordinator at the Institute of Studies on Aging and the author of ‘Aging in Wellness and Adversity’.