From the CEO: Israeli Plan for Dementia Echoes Globally

Originally developed by JDC in the former Soviet Union to combat isolation among elderly Jews, JDC-ESHEL’s Warm Homes project in Israel offers seniors stimulating cultural and social activities.
Originally developed by JDC in the former Soviet Union to combat isolation among elderly Jews, JDC-ESHEL’s Warm Homes project in Israel offers seniors stimulating cultural and social activities.

Alan H. Gill

– Chief Executive Officer

The admonition to cherish and care for the elderly arises in many cultures, from Jewish tradition's dictate to accord dignity to the aging to the Chinese proverb directing that “respect for one's parents is the highest duty of civil life."
 
We at JDC certainly understand that call, especially given our global work with seniors. I often think about how we can do better by the elderly we aid, especially those suffering from neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s. I found some compelling answers in Jerusalem two weeks ago, where I heard from Prof. Jack Habib about the cutting edge work that our Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute (MJB) is doing to address what the World Health Organization calls a growing “global dementia epidemic.”


Israel is the perfect testing ground for this issue since some 150,000 elderly Israelis—almost one in five Israelis over 65 and almost every other person over 85—already live with dementia. These numbers are expected to increase dramatically over the next two decades, in large part due to Israel’s above-average life expectancy.

As early as 2005, MJB was already putting this issue on the table with the first comprehensive national study of the extent of dementia among Israel’s seniors. That foresight is especially impressive given that UK Prime Minister David Cameron just proposed that the G-8 adopt a global plan to deal with dementia in a holistic manner. Within that landscape, and recognizing MJB’s expertise in the area of dementia, the Helen Bader Foundation of Milwaukee provided funding to the Institute to support the preparation of Israel’s first National Strategic Plan for Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia.

In the best spirit of its work, MJB convened a forum of leading experts from the relevant Israeli government ministries, health care organizations, JDC’s ESHEL initiative for the aging, and consumer groups to prepare this National Strategic Plan. It carried out an extensive review of other countries’ efforts in this area and interviewed leading policy makers and service providers. The comprehensive strategy that resulted included recommendations for public awareness, community health and social service networks, family support, end-of-life care, professional training and education, and research needs.

The plan received glowing endorsements in May from Israel’s National Council on Geriatrics and Aging; Prof. Ronni Gamzu, Director General of the Ministry of Health; and the Knesset’s Labor, Welfare and Health Committee. The Ministry also committed funds for implementation and requested that MJB accompany the plan-to-action process. As a first step to ensure public awareness, a national conference will be held in October in collaboration with Israel’s National Council on Aging.

Prof. Gamzu, who is also a member of the MJB Board of Directors, commented that the plan has broader significance as the “perfect test of how the health care system confronts the growing complexity of the problems of the elderly, which have physical, mental, and social dimensions, and which pose particular challenges for families.” The process of putting the plan together will also provide a model for finding comprehensive solutions to other age-related health challenges, he hopes.

MJB’s role in this achievement illustrates how it has worked since its founding in 1974, with its team of researchers working closely with government and health and social service leaders to focus attention on a critical social issue, assemble a broad consensus around that issue, and develop an integrated, long-term strategy for implementation by the government.
 
And, of course, this could not have been possible without the partnership of the Bader Foundation, long involved in the fight against dementia both in its home state of Wisconsin and in Israel. Echoing Israel’s new National Strategy, the Foundation is working to build a Wisconsin-wide model of organizational collaboration that supports the elderly and their families through program development, education and training, applied research, and public policy.

It's this very model that speaks to our larger mandate to care for the elderly in ways that transcend states, countries, and borders. Another snapshot from the JDC world—this time in the former Soviet Union—illustrates this point: In 2010 we launched the Margery Kohrman Saving Memory program to train home care workers and case managers to better assist Alzheimer’s patients in Moscow, Kishinev, Kharkov, and Bryansk. 

Today, the program benefits some 370 elderly Hesed clients, over 200 of whom receive weekly visits from specially trained home care staff. Through personalized intervention programs, staff members engage their clients in activities designed to preserve their functional capabilities and improve their quality of life. And where did many of these dedicated staff members receive advanced training just this past spring? In Israel, where JDC-ESHEL provided them with the latest skills and information to help them care for this special population.

And while we have much to be proud of in terms of JDC’s groundbreaking work with the elderly, the work of MJB on dementia and the Saving Memory program remind us that we must—and can—challenge ourselves to do better.

It’s a fitting challenge. After all, for hundreds of years the rabbis discussed the personal involvement of a child in his or her elderly parents’ care. The obligation to care for the elderly was always at the very core of our tradition. I am proud of JDC's ongoing commitment to the elderly among us, using philanthropic partnerships and leading expertise to give expression to an uncompromising moral position in Israel, Russia, and beyond. 

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