Honoring one who honors others

Dedicated eldercare pioneer Leah Abramowitz is a recipient of this year's Yakir Yerushalayim.

On Jerusalem Day, long-time Jewish Quarter resident Leah Abramowitz will be among those receiving Jerusalem's highest honor, the Yakir Yerushalayim (Worthy of Jerusalem), for her pioneering work in initiating and fostering innovative eldercare in the capital. In 1981, when Israelis still saw themselves as being forever young and the word "Alzheimer's" was taboo, Abramowitz founded, together with Prof. Arnold Rosin - the former director of the Geriatrics Department of Shaare Zedek Medical Center - the Melabev Community Clubs for Eldercare, the first daycare center in Jerusalem for those with dementia. For the next 27 years, until her recent retirement, Abramowitz directed Melabev. She continues to head Melabev's Geriatric Institute which, in conjunction with Shaare Zedek, offers in-service courses for professionals working in eldercare. Abramowitz, who holds an MSW, has been active in other areas as well. She has presented papers at numerous local and international conferences, written extensively for professional publications and published a book on the late Nehama Leibowitz, the well-known Jerusalem biblical scholar and commentator. Together with colleagues, Abramowitz helped found Nefesh Israel, a professional organization for Torah-observant mental health professionals. All this in addition to raising a large family. Today, Melabev is an award-winning nonprofit agency that runs a full spectrum of services for the elderly in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh who suffer from Alzheimer's-like symptoms, as well as for their family caregivers. It offers services for Hebrew, English and Russian speakers. The organization has nine daycare centers for memory and cognitively impaired elderly, including memory clubs for those with mild cognitive impairments. Melabev also runs an assessment center at Shaare Zedek, a homecare program for those unable to attend daycare, respite services, support groups for families, courses for professionals, training for homecare workers and a resource center for accessing information on Alzheimer's care. Melabev serves some 250 elderly in its daycare clubs and 100 in homecare, along with their families, bringing the total of those reached to around 1,000. The average age of a Melabev participant is over 80; one-third are Holocaust survivors. Born in Bad Mergenheim in Germany, Abramowitz (neé Froelich) immigrated to the US as a small child with her family. She grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and came to Jerusalem to study for one year in the mid-1950s. After that she returned to North America as an emissary for B'nai Akiva in Montreal and made aliya in 1957. In 1959 she married Abie Abramowitz, a South African Mahal volunteer who came to Israel during the War of Independence. After living on Kibbutz Lavi and Netivot, the couple settled in Jerusalem. At first, Abramowitz did public relations work. But from 1971 onward, she was a social worker, mainly in the Geriatric Department of Shaare Zedek. "While working in the geriatric ward, I met Jackie Diament," Abramowitz recalls. "She was a new immigrant from South Africa and asked me if I could help her learn about social work in Israel. We started to discuss various aspects, and I told her about my frustrations. There were services available for patients with every condition but dementia. We decided that we should do something. There were already daycare services in America but none in Jerusalem. So we decided to start the city's first daycare center, but we called it a club." Abramowitz got Rosin involved - and Melabev was born. "The idea was to have a social setting that would use environmental manipulation in the care of dementia patients," explains Abramowitz. "This was a totally new approach in Israel. We would use a place with a lot of stimulation. But none of it would be threatening to the participants or would make them feel inadequate. At the same time, we would provide respite for the families, who also really suffer. To this day, we are still elaborating on this idea." The first Melabev club opened in the Givat Shaul Community Center. "We got the premises for free," she says. "The community center personnel were very open. They had no idea what we were doing, but they gave us the space. The staff transported the elderly in their own cars, and the Clalit Health Fund sent us a physiotherapist free of charge. Jackie headed the club and she continues to do so, although the club now meets in Shaare Zedek." Soon the Jerusalem municipality began helping Melabev, and ESHEL of the Joint started to provide some financing. "It was an extraordinary feeling - everyone did his or her share," says Abramowitz. In 1982 a second club opened in the Kiryat Yovel Community Center, where it still meets. This was followed by a group in Ramat Eshkol, which now meets in a building in Pisgat Zeev built with Mifal Hapayis funds for Melabev. An English-speaking group was started in Beit Hakerem. As the need arose, Russian-speaking groups were also set up. And most recently, Melabev began operations in Beit Shemesh. Additional services were added, such as gardening, a beauty salon, a laundry room and showers. The clubs were expanded from three hours a day to six, five days a week, with hot meals and refreshments. "We try to pamper our participants - to give them the honor and respect that the elderly deserve," says Abramowitz. Melabev has a Snoezelen room as well. This is a room in which all the senses are stimulated as a means to soothe the agitated. It includes soft lights, music, aromas and soft objects to hold or touch."The room really calms people down," says Abramowitz. "And they stay calm. They emerge more alert and involved." There is also a short-term respite care for the cognitively impaired that allows caregivers to go on vacation, participate in family events or attend to their own medical needs. Abramowitz is very proud of Melabev's homecare program, which is supported by the UJA-Federation of New York; however, she regrets that this type of service has largely disappeared in Israel. Melabev also has a hospice homecare program for those who want to spend their final time at home. "We provide massages and Snoezelen, plus we have a harpist who plays for the patients. We help to ease their way into the next world," she says. "Over the years, I have learned to appreciate what a privilege it is to work with the elderly," says Abramowitz. "They are living history books. We have people in our clubs who walked across the desert to make aliya, who were our pioneers, fought the Nazis in World War II, fought to found and preserve the State of Israel and more. I met the woman who wrote the first-grade textbook that my children used. We are here today because of them, and it has been an honor to work with them," she asserts. "Over the years, it has also been a privilege to work with such devoted, caring professionals," she continues. "I think that both Prof. Rosin and the chair of the Melabev board, Harry Sapir, also deserve this award." Friends and associates of Leah Abramowitz have established a fund in her honor at Melabev that will pay for daycare for elderly people in need who otherwise could not afford it.