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A thousand refugee seniors from Sderot struggle to adjust

Volunteers from the Feuerstein Institute help older evacuees at Dead Sea hotel deal with the disruption.

The scene after a rocket fired by Palestinian terrorists from the Gaza Strip hit in Sderot, Oct. 17, 2023. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.
The scene after a rocket fired by Palestinian terrorists from the Gaza Strip hit in Sderot, Oct. 17, 2023. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.

For more than a month, thousands of elderly people from communities opposite the Gaza Strip and Lebanon have been in hotels, after being evacuated from their homes. 

Unfortunately, their daily routine has been entirely disrupted. Studies have already shown that a decrease in the routine activity of the elderly causes cognitive impairment and can have life-endangering consequences.

The Feuerstein Institute, which works in the field of memory among adults, has been sending out teams in recent weeks, on a voluntary basis, to set up activities for those elderly people who have been evacuated to hotels across Israel.

The teams, which are made up of professionals, come to the hotels and create activities adapted to the cognitive ability of the elderly, to enhance their quality of life and help them deal with the trauma they have experienced.

After a Gazan rocket strike in Sderot, Oct. 17, 2023. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.

Cognitive tasks

About 1,000 senior citizens from Sderot, a city heavily hit by the Oct. 7 Hamas atrocities, are staying at the Royal Dead Sea Hotel, on the Dead Sea shore. In the day center established there, at the initiative of Sderot Municipality, the Ministry of Welfare and Social Affairs, and the Matav NGO, enrichment activities take place, including exercise activities suitable for the elderly, sewing, knitting, and macrame classes.

Board games and cards are scattered on the tables, and the volunteers of the Feuerstein Institute gather around round tables and invite the elderly to join the table and try the cognitive tasks.

Although about 1,000 seniors are staying in the hotel, so far only a few dozen have joined the tables, but every day the number increases. “We need to attract them to the tables and are trying to reach more and more elderly people,” Tamar Zingerman, the director of the project, tells us.

We meet the director of the institute, Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, who explains the rationale behind the activity.

“The people here are in great danger. They were taken from their homes, from their natural environment. These are people whose structured setting—morning, noon, and evening—is now lost. They don’t cook, they don’t shop, and they don’t host. It’s been like this for over a month, and who knows when it will end.

“When life’s framework is undermined, there is cognitive danger. This is reflected in confusion and a loss of orientation. These are people whose life frameworks were structured and organized, and they are now in danger. It starts with confusion and continues to forgetfulness, dysfunction, and cognitive impairment,” he tells us.

The institute’s volunteers, he explains, actually teach the elderly to plan again, collect data and organize it. “They give them thinking strategies to build a structure on which they can later integrate their lives.”

The volunteers place sheets in front of the seniors and explain how to tackle the problem. In this case, the task is to create a square and a triangle, in a cloud of seemingly meaningless points. These are tasks in spatial planning, which restore control to the elderly, create anchors, and give them active tools to reorganize their lives.

“We see an immediate effect. They enter a mode of thinking, and amidst the emotional flooding and confusion, it gives them an organized framework, a structure. It brings them back to a state of thinking,” explains Feuerstein.

Disturbing thoughts

During our conversation, Daniel Israel, a 68-year-old resident of Sderot, who was heading to the hotel, approached us. He looked troubled and unfocused, like someone who needs an anchor and grounding—that’s what he told us.

Zingerman puts a page in front of him and explains the task.

He begins to connect the dots and, in the process, tells us that he is traumatized.

“I keep thinking about what I went through. The terrorists were outside my house and pointed a weapon at me. They tried to kill me. I saw them, I saw everything they did,” he tells us and shows a video, in which the terrorists are seen arriving in a van outside his yard and shooting everywhere. “My head keeps going back to these moments.”

For a few minutes, he manages to concentrate on the task and get a break from the incessant thoughts. Zingerman explains to him that one of the most important things right now is “to work with your head after what you’ve been through. It will give you back the ability to think more clearly.”

Rosette Goslan, 78, arrived at the hotel on the fourth day of the war.

“For three days I was locked up alone in the bomb shelter. It was terrible,” she says. She doesn’t know if she’ll return to Sderot. On the one hand, her children live there. Yet, she’s afraid and thinks it’s better for her to be in a protected place. “I was sitting in the bomb shelter and I couldn’t close the door. What if I can’t even lock the door? I was afraid to even go into the kitchen, I was afraid that they might have entered my house.”

She was evacuated to the Dead Sea resort area, and her children, she says, were housed in other hotels throughout the country. She misses them, and in order for her not to be consumed by feelings of loneliness, she tries to participate in the various activities offered by the day center for the elderly.

“Everything is prepared for us here, three meals a day. I have nothing to complain about, but I feel that it undermines my independence,” she admits. Participating in the activity offered by the institute makes her focus. “It allows me to think, I feel like it gives me back control of my life,” she says.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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