Homebound seniors in Israel: Isolated and lonely


The elderly in Israel are struggling with the country’s ordered self-quarantine and social distancing that are part of the fight to slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). A number of organizations have stepped in to help.

The country has been radically intensifying its coronavirus regulations that prohibit Israelis from leaving their homes except to obtain “vital needs and services,” such as purchasing food, home supplies and medication they cannot have delivered, or seeking urgent medical attention. The elderly, along with people with chronic conditions and weakened immune systems, were urged not to leave their homes for any reason at all and to rely on delivery services.

“This new situation puts [the elderly] in a difficult reality as their daily routines have evaporated — they no longer go out to meet friends, to community centers, to supermarkets or other activities,” Yossi Heyman, executive director of the American Joint Distribution Committee’s association Eshel, told JNS. “Social distancing is also taking a toll because the elderly face more loneliness than the rest of the population. In fact, we are hearing from many homebound seniors that they’re more afraid of loneliness than the virus.”

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews announced last week the creation of a $5 million emergency fund primarily to help elderly and Holocaust survivors in Israel cope with the coronavirus pandemic by providing them with packages of food, hand sanitizer, hygiene products and other essential items in order to reduce their need to go to shopping centers and risk contracting the virus.

“This is an emergency situation, and we mustn’t forget the most vulnerable,” said Fellowship president and CEO Yael Eckstein.

There are 1,080,000 Israelis over the age of 65, with 200,000 of them living close to the poverty line and unable to afford to rent or purchase a sustainable home, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel’s subsidiary Amigour, a nonprofit that provides housing to senior citizens, new immigrants, Holocaust survivors and single-parent families.

Amigour has purchased enough medical equipment and food provisions for the more than 7,000 senior citizens residing in Amigour’s 57 senior housing facilities. Comprehensive hygiene and disinfectant supplies have been purchased through special donations from Keren HaYesod–United Israel Appeal and from other foundations in North America.

Aside from imposing restrictions on visits in compliance with Ministry of Health instructions, Amigour is also holding “support conversations” with residents and their families.

“We’ve had conversations with all family members of our residents where we explain to them how important it is for them not to come visit during this time,” explained Amigour vice president Erez Shani. “We explained that [the elderly are] extremely sensitive in these ages, and the dangers of being exposed is very, very high. We also explained that we will take care of any needs of the seniors at this time, and any supplies they are missing. The families understand and accept our instructions, and are keeping in touch with their parents by telephone, and we are supporting our seniors in every way possible.”

He added, “Senior citizens understand that this is a really critical time, and they are for the most part adhering to all of the instructions on really strict hygiene and thorough hand washing. We check in on a daily basis with each and every of the residents to check their well-being.”

Latet, an NGO dedicated to fighting poverty, has launched an emergency fund for isolated elderly people who lack access to food and are confined to their homes. The organization is providing packages including food, personal hygiene products and entertainment items that will be delivered directly to homes with the help of volunteers.

The first stage of the emergency fund will serve 10,000 to 15,000 high-risk and vulnerable elderly people in Israel.

“The purpose of this critical operation is to minimize the spread of the virus by ensuring that elderly people will be able to stay home,” Latet said. “Restrictions on gatherings and quarantine, as well as possible increase of price and shortage of basic products, will directly impact the elderly, which are always in the front line in times of crisis.”

Latet forecasts that about 250,000 elderly people will require vital assistance for at least two months.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight out of 10 deaths associated with COVID-19 in the United States to date have been in adults 65 years old and older. In Israel, the first fatality due to complications from the coronavirus was an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor, Aryeh Even of Jerusalem.

Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted a clear message last Monday about separating the younger and older generations in the fight against coronavirus.

He wrote, “I want to share with you the most important thing we’ve learned from the information that flows to us from the field and from all over the world: The deadliest connection is probably between old and young people. By no means get physically close to your grandfather or grandmother!”

Last Tuesday, he referred to his recommendation as “Operation Grandmother” and called contact with elderly people “the most dangerous thing.”

He added that “all of us have the responsibility to hug and cover our grandparents in love, on the phone and with food, but not by getting close to them. If we get close, we risk their lives in a significant way.”