International Day of Older Persons: Creating Tools to Help Our Elderly Age with Grace

On this International Day of Older Persons, JDC’s Yossi Heyman discusses why he has dedicated his life to working with elderly Israelis and how we can address the issues currently presented by the pandemic.

By Yossi Heymann - Executive Director of JDC-ESHEL | October 1, 2021

While aging is a subject many try hard to avoid, it’s my full-time passion.   

After 30 years with the Israeli Defense Force and three years as the director-general of the Jerusalem municipality, I pivoted my life trajectory to join JDC in Israel, and today lead its work with the elderly through a program called ESHEL. We partner with the Israeli government, municipalities, nonprofits, and seniors themselves to develop innovative programming to serve this vulnerable population.  

So why did I choose this path? Why is aging so important to explore? 

As it says in Kedoshim (Leviticus) 19:32, “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.”

Working with the elderly has always touched the deepest parts of my heart. While not the easiest subject to deal with, I have always seen the privilege in being able to help those older than me, the importance of making sure they are properly cared for, and their needs are looked after.  

I have always seen the privilege in being able to help those older than me, the importance of making sure they are properly cared for, and their needs are looked after.

The has become even more true in recent years as the issue of the aging population has become particularly significant in light of the pandemic risks that seniors face and as life expectancy has increased around the world. This has caused a major strain on social support institutions and programming. In fact, in 2015, Israel officially declared this issue one of the seven major national socioeconomic challenges facing the country. 

Today, about 1 million people aged 65 and over live in Israel, constituting about 12 percent of the population. As this population grows, we’re continually working to plan and develop services for elderly Israelis as new situations and variables arise. This includes the recent mapping of aging variables in Israel.   

Together with seven government ministries, the National Insurance Institute (NII), the Bank of Israel, the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), and the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, we then developed a dashboard measuring the health of the aging population by creating a national standard of defined indicators. In July 2021, the Government of Israel officially adopted our dashboard of optimal aging gaps, creating for the first time ever a shared set of indices for Israel’s government ministries and agencies to determine and measure levels of optimal aging among Israeli citizens. 

Yossi Heymann is the Executive Director of JDC-ESHEL.

The dashboard helps us understand the extent to which Israel’s older adults are healthy and living independently and helps guide policymaking, budget allocation and program development accordingly. It’s guided by three indicators: health and functionality; meaning; and economic resilience. In June 2021, we put the dashboard to the test and conducted a survey using these indicators to examine how the vaccination campaign and period of removing COVID-related restrictions affected the elderly population in Israel. 

The survey overwhelmingly showed that despite opening the economy and the decline in restrictions, the situation of the elderly in Israel continues to be difficult. Most alarmingly, 30% of the elderly reported a deterioration in health to the point of impairing daily function, while 37% reported a poor mental state. In addition, the economic situation for this population has suffered immensely, with 54% reporting an increase in expenses, 38% a decrease in work income, 17% a decrease in pension income, and 13% experiencing a decrease in support from family and/or organizations. 

The importance of this survey cannot be understated. It presents us with an up-to-date picture that helps us understand the needs and challenges of this particular time. It clearly shows that for the elderly population the pandemic has not come in waves but has been an ongoing crisis. Knowing this, and understanding that COVID-19 will continue to be a part of our lives for a time to come, we now know the urgency in developing effective solutions to remediate these issues. 

We have already begun taking steps, training elderly in digital literacy so they can take part in our numerous adapted online offerings such as seminars, gatherings, and even virtual rehabilitation services — including medical, nursing, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, social work, speech pathology, and psychology.   

With this, we find ourselves responding to the age-old need to support our elderly and allow them to age with the proper dignity and care, even in challenging times.  

As my parents continue to get older, and as I approach 60, my understanding and connection to the aging population and the meaning of old age has become even more personal. My hope is that, through our holistic efforts — the dashboard, survey, and other targeted initiatives — we will gain the needed insight and tools to allow Israelis, as well as many millions of others around the world, to age with grace and strength.  

Yossi Heymann is the Executive Director of JDC-ESHEL. 

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