When Vivien Steinberg made aliyah in 2017, she was 83 years young and used a wheelchair and a walker. Her doctor suggested she get a cushion to better support her chair.
“Call Yad Sarah” was the physician’s suggestion.
A social worker at Yad Sarah, Israel’s largest national volunteer organization, assessed the recently widowed Steinberg’s needs by phone and not only got her the cushion but offered a bounty of advice on aging in place in her new home.
Six years, one wheelchair, a hospital bed and a hoist machine later, Yad Sarah is still supporting Steinberg in her choice to live in her own home near her loved ones.
“She would have had a challenging time finding anything close to this level of service had she stayed in the United States,” her daughter said.
Philip Bendheim, head of international affairs for Yad Sarah, is a second-generation volunteer, coordinating activities for the Friends of Yad Sarah associations in Europe and in the U.S. His mother, Els Bendheim, founded the U.S. Friends Association at her dining room table in 1980.
“I remember schlepping commodes for toilets, breast pumps and more every time we would take a trip to Israel,” Philip said. “Today Yad Sarah procures and lends out over 385,000 pieces of medical and rehabilitation equipment per year. If anyone needs care at home, Yad Sarah supports them.”
Rabbi Uri Lupolianski, founder of Yad Sarah (and mayor of Jerusalem from 2003 to 2008), was inspired to start the organization in 1976 when, as a young father, he decided to pass along a nebulizer he had used for his baby to a neighbor who needed it.
Keenly aware that the machine was hard to find in Israel, he bought seven more and began lending them out. Little by little, he procured more equipment including cribs, breast pumps and wheelchairs. He eventually developed a mission to buy and lend equipment and added services that support people from “cradle to grave.”
“We set out to build a national organization of loving kindness targeting the public, based on quality service from the heart,” explained Lupolianski. “Yad Sarah’s mission is to promote saving lives and improving the quality of life for everyone at an equal value for every soul, including tourists.”
“Uri is ahead of the curve,” explained Bendheim. “He thinks about it from the standpoint of the patient … how can people be more independent? How can we get them devices that help them stay home in a safe environment?”
But the benefits are not just confined to helping patients. Yad Sarah’s loaners are reforming the entire Israeli health care system.
On Thursday, the organization released figures that show its home hospitalization equipment lending operations save the country’s healthcare system more than 5.5 billion shekels ($1.5 billion) each year.
Yad Sarah based its calculations on current hospital costs and on how many days of hospitalization were avoided thanks to the borrowed equipment. And for Israeli taxpayers, Yad Sarah estimates that its services save hundreds of millions of shekels in personal healthcare expenses. Yad Sarah estimates that by providing in-home hospital equipment, it reduced hospitalization-stay days by 14,000, relieving stress on medical centers across the country.
Bendheim marvels over the 5.5 billion shekel number.
“I thought they had to have made a mistake, when I saw the ‘B,’” he said. “Then I saw the financial backup. We can estimate it by looking at the cost of equipment and hospital costs. And this doesn’t even include the environmental savings that we affect for the country by refurbishing and reusing equipment.”
What started as an individual lending out a few nebulizers blossomed into an organization with 350 paid staff, and 7,000 volunteers who include physiotherapists, drivers, logistical volunteers, equipment repairers, branch managers, dental workers, hotline supporters and volunteer coordinators, in 126 branches all over Israel. Its programs go way beyond its medical and equipment loans. Yad Sarah aids people an estimated 1,250,000 times a year.
Through their Emergency Medical Center and emergency alarm response system, Yad Sarah provides seniors with fall-detection sensors. A medical hotline alerts emergency services in the event of a fall.
Bendheim pointed out that one in every three people over the age of 65 falls in his or her home every year, and 5% of those die as a direct or indirect consequence of the fall. Yad Sarah’s Emergency Hotline saved the lives of 831 elderly persons last year alone.
“YadSarahVans” provides transportation for people with limited mobility. Yad Sarah also offers telemedicine and other advanced equipment for those who need home hospitalization.
Its centers for alleviating loneliness reach out to lonely and isolated seniors, and eldercare legal services and mobile dental clinics are available for seniors as well.
Yad Sarah recently began a program called Yad Letomech, which helps caregivers to the elderly who may experience burnout. By analyzing their data, Yad Letomech can identify caregivers who could use a helping hand or someone to listen to them, and reach out to them, creating regional support groups.
The organization takes a creative approach to procuring, innovating and creating goods and services.
“When Uri heard about COVID, he heard it could affect breathing, so he put in an immediate order for 3,500 oxygenators,” recalled Bendheim. “While entire countries were scrambling for machines, we were able to get them.
“Before hospitals began making decisions to ration hospital services, Uri ordered 20,000 pulse oximeters to enable people to monitor their sat [blood oxygen saturation] rates. When we had a mask shortage, he brought in a mask-making machine, so we were able to make masks for all our people,” Bendheim continued.
Yad Sarah offers a program where people donate unexpired medications for distribution to seniors. This past year, Yad Sarah distributed more than 1.5 million shekels ($410,000) worth of drugs free of charge to older people unable to afford their prescriptions.
Thus, it is no surprise that Yad Sarah has an innovation program with an in-house full-time occupational therapist designing solutions for products and utensils that adapt appliances and equipment to promote accessibility and independence.
“It could be as simple as a rubber band around a cane to make it easier to hold or [the user] less likely to fall, or a machine that hooks up a pulse oximeter to an oxygen distribution machine so that the oxygen level doesn’t get too high, or lighting solutions for patients’ homes or keyholders to help them keep their keys nearby,” explained Bendheim. “We don’t patent things. We want them to be accessible to everyone.”
According to Bendheim, Yad Sarah is not well-known in America, whereas in Israel, health funds (the equivalent of HMOs) routinely recommend Yad Sarah to patients needing equipment and services even though hospitals and pharmacies may offer products for sale. Most of Yad Sarah’s offerings are either nominally priced or free.
The most borrowed equipment from Yad Sarah in the last 12 months were wheelchairs (128,551), crutches (112,902), walkers (91,839), oxygen cylinders (54,535) and breast pumps (44,377).
For those who do want to purchase new items such as wheelchairs and walkers, Lupolianski created the Yassam group, which sells equipment through Yad Sarah at a reasonable price. Because Yad Sarah buys in quantity, Lupolianski can negotiate good prices with vendors and pass along savings to customers.
How do potential international donors react when Bendheim tells them about Yad Sarah?
Bendheim said that years ago, a man was visiting Israel on a tour when his wife fell and needed crutches. After setting and casting her foot, the doctor suggested they call Yad Sarah. They borrowed crutches and were so inspired by the concept of Yad Sarah that the man kept in touch and founded a similar organization in Stamford, Connecticut. He named it “Wheel it Forward.” And he remains a friend of Yad Sarah to this day.
Yad Sarah is a not-for-profit organization. Its annual operating budget is financed almost completely by donations, over 70% of which are raised within Israel. No ongoing government assistance is received. Friends of Yad Sarah associations in the U.S., U.K., Switzerland and Canada represent the mission of Yad Sarah to local friends and policymakers.