The Meaning of Hesed: Using Facebook to Connect the Elderly in the FSU

As a trained psychologist, Irina Lebedeva uses Facebook videos and other technology to help ease the isolation of homebound elderly Jews.

By Irina Lebedeva - Hesed Psychologist; Lviv, Ukraine | September 2, 2021

Lebedeva (left) with an elderly client.

The COVID-19 pandemic generated a second crisis: social isolation. And for elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union (FSU), this loneliness has been severe. Luckily, there’s Irina Lebedeva. At the JDC-supported Hesed Arieh social welfare center in Lviv, Ukraine, Lebedeva, a trained psychologist, uses Facebook videos and other technology to connect with homebound elderly Jews. Here, she talks about her work, and why social connection is so crucial for our well-being.

If you spend a lot of time alone, you might experience what I call a “narrowing of the mind.” It may seem as if you are the only one with problems. That’s where the danger lurks, when you can no longer cope with these difficulties, and it feels like no one’s there to help you.

During COVID-19, this despair has become pandemic. 

Irina Lebedeva (right) meets with elderly clients at the JDC-supported Hesed Arieh center in Lviv, Ukraine.

Since 2014, I’ve had the privilege of working at Lviv’s JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center, where, as a psychologist, I’ve helped elderly clients overcome social isolation. In addition to my regular work with elderly clients, I also assist homecare workers through weekly psychological support groups, educational outreach activities, and training seminars. 

In the former Soviet Union, psychological assistance is commonly seen as superfluous. But at Hesed, we make it possible for elderly people to receive this critical support and feel like one big Jewish family in the process. This help is professional, and we communicate with our clients on equal terms, tailoring our approach to the individual’s needs.

Many elderly people are bereft, having lost a partner or child, and since they’ve experienced war and persecution, there’s trauma, too. When you combine this with financial instability, a meager pension, and the loneliness of old age, one can see why JDC’s services are so necessary.

Before the pandemic, we held regular in-person psychological support groups, in which we helped to prevent age-related damage (impaired memory, attention, coordination), and encouraged positive communication, mutual assistance, altruism, and preventative health measures. 

We also encouraged the elderly to ask for help; for many elderly people, seeking assistance is a sign of weakness and helplessness. To save face, they often conceal their needs and problems. This silence can make it difficult for us to provide help. 

When the pandemic started, everything changed. All of a sudden, everyone was cut off from each other. This was especially true for our seniors. 

But we didn’t skip a beat. At Hesed, we got together and asked ourselves: How can we reduce the level of anxiety amongst the elderly? How can we ensure that they can still meet with caregivers, even if not in person? What tools can most effectively mimic the feeling of in-person communication? 

Lebedeva (right) assists an elderly client

That’s how we tapped into Facebook videos. Under quarantine conditions, they can partially replace live communication, giving people a sense of presence and participation in community life. For more than a year, we’ve hosted weekly live Facebook videos.

These videos run the gamut of health-related topics, from a primer on relaxation techniques to various breathing exercises, as well as interpersonal communication. 

After each video session, viewers always have a lot of comments and questions. Our clients also call and thank me for the videos, sharing their thoughts, experiences, and topic requests for the following week. Though I’m helping them, it feels collaborative, too.

I can reach a much more diverse audience with these videos than I ever could before the pandemic: elderly community members, Hesed social workers, and even clients’ children now living abroad. For example, we have a community member named Iya Iolina who is 100 years old. Her grandson, who lives in Germany, wrote to me: “Thank you so much for helping my grandmother. These videos are so necessary.” 

Right now, quarantine has been slightly relaxed, and we’ve had the chance to meet in small groups outside while observing social distancing measures and following JDC’s COVID-19 protocols. And as fantastic as Facebook videos can be, I also hope to meet my clients in person: Nothing replaces in-person communication. 

But the previous year has taught us that we can take nothing for granted. That’s why I will continue to use every tool at my disposal, including online tools, to improve the well-being of elderly and vulnerable Jews all across the world. 

I want them to understand that they are not alone, that they can always turn to us, and each other, for help. And sometimes, they can help themselves. 

I want elderly Jews to know that they are not alone, that they can always turn to us, and each other, for help.

We have only one life, and aging is impossible to avoid. How we live right now determines how we will age. “Grumpy” old people do not fall from the sky. You can be active, cheerful, and creative, or aggressive, lonely, and unhealthy. We must do what we can now to ensure that our old age is the former, and that we will have someone to turn to, someone who can help us.

That’s why we must live a full life, making the most of our time. Don’t wait for tomorrow: Live right here and right now. 

In this sense, charity is a powerful tool. Doing good for others, we become more positive. By helping our elderly, we help ourselves in the future. 

And thanks to modern technology, we can now prevent social isolation on a much larger scale. JDC shows that it’s possible to help elderly Jews strengthen their social skills, call a friend, and support a neighbor, all in the middle of a pandemic. It’s a well-known fact that when you help someone, your personal problems become smaller and take a back seat. 

In that sense, Hesed (Hebrew for “lovingkindness”) becomes more than just the name of an organization; it becomes a way of life.

Irina Lebedeva, 57, was born above the Arctic Circle. She finished school in Russia and earned her engineering degree in Kyiv, Ukraine. Later, Irina moved to Uzbekistan, where she lived with her family for seven years. In 2013, she earned a second degree as a psychologist, and in 2017, she earned a third degree and became a psychological consultant for the JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center in Lviv, Ukraine.

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