Our responsibility to save the elderly of Israel

Retirement home (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Retirement home (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
 Last week during Hanukkah, three elderly people were found dead in their homes in separate instances over the course of six hours. These people, who passed away without anyone else around to care for them, join the other 130 elderly people who died alone in their homes in Israel in 2019.
It is all too common that an older person living alone will suffer from medical complications and do so without having anyone around to visit or care for them. In fact, on average, every 2.75 days in Israel, an elderly person dies alone in their own home without anyone knowing about it. This situation has to change.
I’ve always felt that we need to do more for the part of the population that is in its golden years. We need to provide for them on both an emotional and medical level. Having 133 people die in Israel without anyone knowing about it until days later is unfathomable. It is tragic in the most epic of proportions.
The narrative gets worse when we realize that many of these people were Holocaust survivors or founders of the State of Israel. As a society and a nation, we owe them more respect than to let this happen. We owe it to them and we owe it to ourselves. The most tragic part of this reality is that it isn’t new, rather it has been happening for many years.
A few years ago, an 84-year-old man living in the center of the country wasn’t seen or heard from for days. The person’s neighbors called the police and asked that a search be undertaken to find out where the person was. The police arrived and found the person lying on the floor in his living room with a horrible smell. They called for an ambulance from Magen David Adom which arrived and pronounced the person dead.
When the burial society arrived to begin preparations to remove the body and arrange for the funeral, the man began to move. The police had to call the ambulance back in order to take the man to the hospital. What had happened was that he had suffered a stroke a few days earlier and had collapsed on the ground unable to move. As he lived alone, there was no one to alert emergency services that he needed help.
When I heard this story, I decided to take action and began the Ten Kavod (Giving Honor/Respect) project. This is a project that has medical first responders go and visit the elderly in Israel and provide a free medical checkup in their own homes. But it goes far beyond that. It matches up a volunteer emergency medical technician with an elderly person who lives on their own so that the EMT can spend some time with the person and help alleviate the person’s sense of loneliness and abandonment by society.
THIS PAST Hanukkah, at the same time that the three most recent elderly people passed away, hundreds of emergency medical service volunteers from United Hatzalah’s Ten Kavod project visited with elderly or sick patients in hospitals and in their homes across the country. The volunteers made these visits in order to share a little bit of the light of Hanukkah with those who are in need of joy.
Thus far, we have 600 volunteers visiting more than 700 elderly people on a weekly basis to provide them with a social outlet and a free medical checkup. These people, many of whom are not able to leave their homes easily to visit the doctor or even visit family members, receive very few visits from, and have very little interaction with, the outside world. That is why we asked our medical volunteers to take extra time away from their own families each week and around the holiday season.
It is our responsibility as a society to treat the elderly among us with the utmost respect. We cannot leave them on their own. We pray each year during the High Holy Days in the Shema Koleinu prayer, “Do not abandon us to old age. When our strength fails us, do not leave us.” That is the purpose of this project. We must make sure that the elderly people in our society do not feel abandoned or left behind.
The volunteers visit elderly people in their own communities. They spend time socializing with them and checking their medical status. The hope is to build a system of preventive medicine while at the same time alleviating the sense of loneliness that the person feels. Many of these people live alone and don’t have anyone to visit them during the holidays, which can be particularly hard. It is incredibly important to show them that they are cared for. Therefore our volunteers took on the mission of spending at least one night of the holiday with them over Hanukkah.
Every one of these volunteers shares the belief that they can do more for their community than provide emergency medical care, that they can help those who need it most and those who are most vulnerable. I am proud of every single one of them. For as the quote attributed to Harry Truman goes, “A society will be judged by how it treats its weakest members.”
There is still a lot of work that needs to be done and we aren’t yet reaching all of the elderly people who need our help as evidenced by the above shocking statistics. A friend and board member Bert Cohen was also shocked by this issue. Together the two of us went to the Knesset and lobbied for government intervention in order to help make sure that this situation never happens again. We were met with silence and a lack of enthusiasm to change any of the relevant systems that could help the elderly of our society.
That day we learned that we cannot wait for our government to intervene we must make the change ourselves and do more for this segment of society. If you or someone you know is interested in volunteering for this project please go to tenkavod.israelrescue.org for more information.
The writer is the father of five children, a social entrepreneur and president and founder of United Hatzalah of Israel, an independent, non-profit, fully volunteer EMS organization that provides fast and free emergency first response throughout Israel.