Through Technology, Reaching Isolated Israeli Seniors

March 5, 2014


Wheelchair-bound following an accident in 1982, Rachel Zalmanovich is full of boundless energy. She speaks six languages; has studied education, English, psychology, and nutrition; and has worked as a teacher, counselor, and researcher.

A mother of four and grandmother of two, she began volunteering with Israelis with disabilities at the age of 62 and was soon elected as the Accessibility Committee chairwoman for an organization in Ramat Gan that works to make the city just east of Tel Aviv accessible for all its residents. In 2009, she was cited as “Woman of the Year” by the Israel chapter of the world’s largest international volunteer organization for her volunteer work with special-needs Israelis.

When a 2011 stroke robbed Zalmanovich, 73, of her speech and brought it with a slew of other health problems, she turned to JDC.

Zalmanovich found what she needed in JDC-ESHEL, the Association for the Planning and Development of Services for the Aged, which has transformed the quality of life available to Israel’s seniors since its inception in 1969.

Zalmanovich said JDC-ESHEL’s innovative Networked Seniors project — a Skype-linked virtual day care center for seniors that features brain and memory games, guided discussions about current events and literature, and workshops focusing on communication skills, assertiveness, and coping with loneliness — was instrumental to her recovery.

“I couldn’t believe that I couldn’t say a word. I literally lost my ability to communicate,” Zalmanovich said of her stroke. “But after some five months of very difficult, painful, and strenuous speech therapy, I began the art of slow, unpronounceable speech, and that’s when Networked Seniors stepped in as my major connection to the outside world.”

The Skype sessions, which are scheduled for mornings and afternoons, are currently only conducted in Hebrew, but ESHEL organizers expect to add programs in Arabic and Russian in the future. They also envision expanding the initiative to include support groups, “armchair travel,” and virtual museum-hosted tours, and are building partnerships with cultural institutions and non-profit organizations to achieve those goals.

The program is run in conjunction with Watchitoo, an Israeli-American video platform.

“Today, I thoroughly enjoy taking part in Networked Seniors’ various enrichment programs and want them to continue to grow,” Zalmanovich said. “Life is beautiful. One must do everything possible to live, love, smile, and enjoy it to its fullest. JDC makes that a reality for me.”

Networked Seniors is just one tool in JDC-ESHEL’s arsenal, which increasingly uses technological advances to supplement its mission of making life easier for Israel’s most vulnerable and isolated seniors.

Building off of a neighborhood walkability app developed at Stanford University’s Healthy Aging Research and Technology Solutions laboratory, JDC-ESHEL is localizing the program into Hebrew and putting it into trial in three Israeli cities. The project’s goal is to better engage seniors in their neighborhoods and with activities that promote health and fitness.

Each city will run the pilot in three different neighborhoods, with fifteen participants per neighborhood completing a “typical walk” tracked through the tablet-based app.

These participants will be trained to assess neighborhood walkability conditions and communicate the results to local planners and policy-makers to suggest infrastructure improvements.

The project will first launch in Haifa before expanding to Zichron Yaakov, Kiryat Bialik, and Or Akiva, and the University of Haifa will analyze the seniors’ findings.

JDC-ESHEL is also pioneering a “telecare” project to install sophisticated sensor-based systems in the homes of vulnerable seniors in Kfar Saba that will send alerts in emergency situations and track significant changes in activity patterns that might indicate mental or physical deterioration or distress.

The apps are generously supported by the Parasol Foundation Trust, which supports Eshel’s Citizens Advocacy Program, helping elderly using technology to promote more physical activity in a safer environment. More broadly, JDC-ESHEL is supported by the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Philanthropic Foundation, John Hagee Ministries, and Dorothy Winter.

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