While a number of Jewish organizations are focused on helping the elderly in Israel, who are at a higher risk of getting extremely sick from the coronavirus (COVID-19), not get infected with coronavirus, the older population is struggling with the country’s ordered self-quarantine and social distancing.

Israel has been radically intensifying its coronavirus regulations with new directives issued by the Health Ministry that prohibit Israelis from leaving their homes except to obtain “vital needs and services,” such as purchasing food, home supplies and medication they cannot have delivered, or seeking urgent medical attention.

The elderly, along with people with chronic conditions and weakened immune systems, were urged not to leave their homes for any reason at all and to rely on delivery services.

“This new situation puts [the elderly] in a difficult reality as their daily routines have evaporated; they no longer go out to meet friends, to community centers, to supermarkets or other activities,” Yossi Heyman, executive director of the American Joint Distribution Committee’s association Eshel (JDC-Eshel), told JNS. JDC-Eshel partners with the Israeli government in the planning and development of services for older adults and their families in Israel.

Heyman added that “social distancing is also taking a toll because the elderly face more loneliness than the rest of the population. In fact, we are hearing from many homebound seniors that they’re more afraid of loneliness than the virus.”

An older man in Israel wears a face mask to protect himself from the coronavirus, March 2020. Credit: Photo by Jordan Hay/IFCJ.

“In this situation, family and caregivers have a very important role in creating human communication. Using technology to communicate—whether through phone call, video chats and apps—can make a great change. We even heard of families encouraging the grandparents to read bedtime stories to the grandkids via video. While we fight the virus, we’ve got to remember our battle with isolation and loneliness.”

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews announced last week the creation of a $5 million emergency fund primarily to help elderly and Holocaust survivors in Israel cope with the coronavirus pandemic by providing them with packages of food, hand sanitizer, hygiene products and other essential items in order to reduce their need to go to shopping centers and risk contracting the virus.

Through the organization’s With Dignity and Fellowship ministry, the emergency fund will aid 15,000 of Israel’s elderly population with food and basic needs. Supplies will start being sent out in the coming days with the help of hundreds of volunteers, including youth organizations, who will assist with the provision of food and contact with isolated senior citizens. The Fellowship additionally contacted thousands of seniors to determine their most urgent needs and plans to work with other aid organizations in order to operate at national and local levels.

This is an emergency situation, and we mustn’t forget the most vulnerable,” said Fellowship president and CEO Yael Eckstein. “Under normal circumstances, the elderly are more prone to loneliness as well as financial and physical difficulties. Now, they cannot even leave their homes for fear of catching the virus.”

The Fellowship’s emergency fund will also supply equipment to hospitals and emergency teams struggling to meet the needs of their needs, including the purchase of needed test kits, respirators, disinfectant equipment and other lifesaving emergency supplies. The equipment will be provided in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Health.

‘Supporting our seniors in every way possible’

There are 1,080,000 million Israelis over the age of 65, with 200,000 of them living close to the poverty line and unable to afford to rent or purchase a sustainable home, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel’s subsidiary Amigour, a nonprofit that provides housing to senior citizens, new immigrants, Holocaust survivors and single-parent families in Israel.

More than 7,000 senior citizens currently reside in Amigour’s 57 senior housing facilities throughout Israel. None of the senior citizens in the housing units has been tested positive for coronavirus, but 11 are in quarantined as a precaution, Erez Shani, Amigour’s vice president of resource development for senior homes in Israel, told JNS.

Shani explained that Amigour is recognized as a company that is required to operate during a times of crisis, therefore “the work hours for all the staff has been extended, and especially, for the social workers, building supervisors and caregivers. We’ve even recruited additional personnel for the coming period. All employees are arriving every day at work. This is a job that requires them to be present.”

Israeli senior citizens inside the Akademaim Senior Housing Facility in Ashkelon, March 2020. Credit: Courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Amigour has already purchased enough medical equipment and food provisions for its senior residents to cover the next six months. Comprehensive hygiene and disinfectant supplies have been purchased through special donations from Keren HaYesod–United Israel Appeal and from other foundations in North America. Aside from imposing restrictions on visits in compliance with Ministry of Health instructions, Amigour is also holding “support conversations” with residents and their families.

Shani said “we’ve had conversations with all family members of our residents where we explain to them how important it is for them not to come visit during this time. We explained that [the elderly are] extremely sensitive in these ages, and the dangers of being exposed is very, very high. We also explained that we will take care of any needs of the seniors at this time, and any supplies they are missing. The families understand and accept our instructions, and are keeping in touch with their parents by telephone, and we are supporting our seniors in every way possible.”

He added, “Senior citizens understand that this is a really critical time, and they are for the most part adhering to all of the instructions on really strict hygiene and thorough hand washing. We check in on a daily basis with each and every of the residents to check their well-being.”

‘The most dangerous thing’

Other organizations focused on helping the elderly population during this time of crisis is the Israeli nonprofit Latet, an NGO dedicated to fighting poverty that has launched an emergency fund for isolated elderly people who lack access to food and are confined to their homes. The organization is providing packages including food, personal hygiene products and entertainment items that will be delivered directly to homes with the help of volunteers.

The current first stage of the emergency fund will serve 10,000 to 15,000 high-risk and vulnerable elderly people in Israel. The operation is intended to be spread out over at least two months before Latet reassesses the situation, said the organization. An emergency call center is also being set up to respond to any inquiries.

“The purpose of this critical operation is to minimize the spread of the virus by ensuring that elderly people will be able to stay home. Elderly people are the most at risk population and should be protected during the whole time of the crisis in order to avoid further escalation,” Latet said in a statement. “Restrictions on gatherings and quarantine, as well as possible increase of price and shortage of basic products, will directly impact the elderly, which are always in the front line in times of crisis. Latet is aiming to help the most impoverished and isolated elderly.”

Elderly Israelis using videoconference chat during the 2014 Gaza war, again being used again to keep seniors feeling connected during the coronavirus crisis. Credit: JDC-Eshel.

Latet forecasts that about 250,000 elderly people will require vital assistance for at least two months.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight out of 10 deaths associated with COVID-19 in the United States to date have been in adults 65 years old and older. (As of Monday, there were 530 deaths and more than 43,000 cases of coronavirus, with 295 recovered from the disease.) In Israel, the first fatality due to complications from the coronavirus was an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor, Aryeh Even of Jerusalem. (As of Monday, 1,442 Israelis have tested positive for the coronavirus, with the one death on March 20.)

Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted a clear message last Monday about separating the younger and older generations in the fight against coronavirus.

He wrote, “I want to share with you the most important thing we’ve learned from the information that flows to us from the field and from all over the world: The deadliest connection is probably between old and young people. By no means get physically close to your grandfather or grandmother!”

Last Tuesday, he referred to his recommendation as “Operation Grandmother” and called contact with elderly people “the most dangerous thing.”

He added that “all of us have the responsibility to hug and cover our grandparents in love, on the phone and with food, but not by getting close to them. If we get close, we risk their lives in a significant way.”

 For more information on helping senior citizens, visit the CDC website’s section titled “What others can do to support older adults.”

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