New year for the golden-agers

Nonprofit Aleh goes beyond just caring for Rehovot’s seniors, by providing them with a sense of belonging and cultural enrichment.

Getting current: Learning how to use a computer and iPad (photo credit: Courtesy)
Getting current: Learning how to use a computer and iPad
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In a hustling world driven by fast turnover, the elderly often feel left behind. Respect for grandparents seems to exist only in societies that cling to traditional ways. Wisdom gained over a lifetime spanning three, or even four generations, isn’t considered relevant. But intellectual vigor, curiosity, the longing to contribute, the need for society and friendship are things that continue living in the mind, even as the body ages.
And what of needy elders who live alone, those who have outlived family and friends? What about Holocaust survivors on their own, elderly immigrants who don’t speak Hebrew, can’t understand official letters and utility bills, and don’t know their rights? Far too many of them feel like travelers cast adrift in a sea of people who don’t care. Seniors make up 10.8% of Israel’s population. Who’s taking care of them today? In Israel’s early years, social services for seniors were skimpy, even nonexistent.
Rehovot, one of the country’s earliest-established towns, had a large elderly population, many of whom lived alone. Yechezkel Harmelech, then mayor of the town, decided to fill in the gaps for needy seniors. Working with Eshel, a division of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee dedicated to the elderly, and the Social Services Ministry, Harmelech founded Aleh, a non-profit organization dedicated heart and soul to the welfare of the elderly in Rehovot. Metro spent a morning talking to Aleh’s administrators and visited the organization’s day center.
Before retirement, Harmelech also founded, and was the first manager of the Meuhedet health fund. Until the 1970s, there was only one health fund, Amamit, a branch of the Histadrut labor federation.
“As the years went on, Rehovot’s senior population naturally increased,” Harmelech told me. “Amamit served only employees, which excluded retirees, farmers, self-employed people, small business owners. Middle-aged workers often had to quit their jobs in order to take care of their parents. There was no support of any kind from the state for these populations.
Socializing and song: The Aleh choir (photo credit: Courtesy)Socializing and song: The Aleh choir (photo credit: Courtesy)
“In 1972, I gathered volunteers from the top sectors of government, most of them retirees themselves,” Harmelech continues.
“People with years of experience in their fields and lots of contacts. Our vision was to improve the life of seniors in Rehovot by creating a multipurpose service organization. We now make it possible for thousands of seniors to continue living in their own homes instead of moving into retirement homes. We make a community for lonely elders.”
Volunteerism is a key factor in Aleh’s success. The organization is run by 350 volunteers and has only 60 salaried employees.
Head of general administration Assaf Rishkin chimes in: “One of our unique factors is our volunteers. Not one is under age 70. One of our most active volunteers is actually 90. In other societies for the elderly, volunteers are only entrusted with minor tasks. Our volunteers work according to their experience and abilities. Our chairman, the administration – everyone is a volunteer except for myself, our PR person, and maintenance staff. Our volunteers set programs up, give information about legal and financial rights, lead workshops and give lectures, go out to people’s houses to do repairs, and much more – from small to great tasks. We have social workers, psychologists, nurses, gerontologists, therapist, as well as plumbers, electricians and cooks. We also support people through the small claims court.
“Volunteering with Aleh often develops into a second or even third career for volunteers, in which they contribute valuable time helping others. And they stay with us for years.”
Harmelech adds, “The economic value of our volunteers’ work equals NIS 3 million every year; that is, we would have to pay NIS 3m. in salaries yearly, for the work our volunteers do.”
Zehava Ayal, head of support and welfare services, explains, “Any senior in Rehovot can call us up, 24/7, and ask for help. It could be something that seems trivial, like replacing a light bulb; for the sight-impaired, a faulty light bulb isn’t trivial. Or it could be having someone go to their house and explain what their bills and bank letters mean.”
Over 500 registered householders call on those, and similar services under the Kehila Tomechet (supportive community) program. Other services are hot meals brought to the housebound and visitors who cook and serve meals at seniors’ homes. Home visitors also monitor medications, help shaky seniors take showers, and go shopping with them.
The team includes trained professionals who obtain referrals from doctors or arrange home medical visits. They organize emergency call buttons to wear and help recruiting and interviewing paid companions. If a person falls at home, a volunteer will arrive to pick them up, assess the situation and call an ambulance if need be. When a participant is hospitalized, he or she will receive follow-up phone calls and a visit when they return home. Seniors may ask for a volunteer to inspect their homes for safety and give advice about repairs or things like grip bars in the shower, and how to get them done.
One of the community programs, called Bayit Ham (the warm home), is dedicated to Russian immigrants.
Groups meet monthly at volunteers’ homes and enjoy cake, coffee and socializing in their common language.
The Ethiopian community is also well served with group activities, volunteers’ visits, and outings. Even the “Anglo-Saxon” community has a place in Aleh, at the cafe. Rishkin says with a smile: “The English speakers meet in the cafe once a week and hold their ‘parliament’ there.”
“ASIDE FROM help in the home,” Ayal continues, “We offer many cultural enrichment opportunities and ways to socialize.
We aim to give the lonely elderly a sense of belonging to a community, to have friends. Our ‘Culture Cafe’ and day center serve that purpose.”
The cafe isn’t only for schmoozing over cake and coffee. Lectures, movies and some performances take place there.
The day center houses many activities, with spaces for exercise and sports like table tennis, tai chi and chi gong; several kinds of dancing; computer classes and learning to handle a smartphone; art and handicrafts; music classes, gardening, writing autobiographies, therapy pets, and much more.
Staying fit: The day center houses many spaces for exercise and sport, like table tennis (photo credit: Courtesy)Staying fit: The day center houses many spaces for exercise and sport, like table tennis (photo credit: Courtesy)
The day center also offers kosher breakfast and lunch. When the spacious dining area is free, young volunteers such as soldiers, high-school students and National Service girls visit with the elders there.
Walking through at mid-morning, I saw cheerful seniors playing Scrabble, several people just socializing, and an elderly man playing an intense game of chess with a National Service girl.
I peeked into a handicrafts class where a group of ladies were knitting and crocheting.
One, a lively woman who was pushing wool through a tapestry, told me all about her grand- and great-grandchildren.
Samples of the group’s work were displayed on shelves all around. In the arts room, a woman was silently focusing on painting a papier mâché pomegranate crimson; maybe a decoration for Rosh Hashana. Women can get their hair fixed in the small beauty parlor. In the lobby, men and women, some in wheelchairs, watched the news on a big-screen TV.
Some had given into drowsiness and were napping in their chairs.
I visited the wing dedicated to elders with cognitive disabilities, a colorful, comfortable-looking series of rooms.
There, elders with dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease join activities and games with a trained therapist, to help slow the progress of their ailments.
Loneliness takes a toll emotionally and even physically. One of the regular lectures at Aleh is on how to manage living alone, including learning how to avoid home accidents. A related important program is Ozen Kashevet: weekly phone calls to housebound elders where volunteers ring up to ask how things are going, or just to say hello and listen to whatever the senior wants to say. The program functions in 14 languages.
When I visited the day center, I saw a notice on one bulletin board that asks for Portuguese-speaking volunteers.
Presumably, there are Brazilian seniors in the community who’d like someone to chat with. One Ozen Kashevet volunteer says, “I know my seniors are just waiting for my call.”
Seniors enjoy all kinds of outings, from trips to the theater, concerts, ballet and the opera to easy walks in nature or tours to sites. Transportation is provided, and the outings are modified according to the participants’ mobility. When I asked how needy elders pay, Rishkin answered that the National Insurance Institute covers most of the fees, and that in any case fees are very low.
Aleh offers an impressive variety of programs and services to Rehovot’s elderly; both for those who can move and those homebound. It covers every important aspect of a senior’s life, and all seniors are welcome. There’s no interview, no boundaries of age, origin, income, medical condition or location.
Residents of nearby towns may also apply and register. The management is open to innovation and determined to continue expanding its field of up-todate services. What’s amazing is how this sophisticated, complex organization is run almost entirely by the power of volunteers.
People get to know about Aleh and its services via a monthly newsletter tucked into mailboxes. It’s full of information and articles of interest to the elderly and to “sandwich generation” children. It also broadcasts a twice-weekly TV program on local TV channel 98, on Monday and Thursday mornings.
“And there’s word of mouth,” says Harmelech with a smile. “People who come here like to talk about it.”
A model of the new building, which will centralize all of Aleh’s branches and is due to be finished in May 2017 (photo credit: Courtesy)A model of the new building, which will centralize all of Aleh’s branches and is due to be finished in May 2017 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Right now, there’s a long waiting list to register for participation, because all the facilities are at full capacity. The offices, cafe and day center are in rented facilities located in different parts of town. A new building centralizing all the Aleh branches is in the works, with construction due to finish in May 2017. The building will occupy 180 square meters and will have two floors, standing near the town center, the central bus station and the shuk. All the branches will be under one roof in an accessible location. The foundations are already complete, but money is short, and donations are vital for construction to go forward.
“It’s a big challenge. We need to raise funds,” says Harmelech. “This is a non-profit organization. Any money coming in from participants, donations or government bodies is immediately put back into maintenance and development.
We don’t take a shekel, not even for the phone calls we make.”
Aleh: 41 Bilu Street, Rehovot. Telephone: *8870.