Israel’s first geriatric study tour inspires professionals

Members of the first international geriatric tour visit projects to help elderly Bedouin men and women in Israel. Melabev founder Leah Abramowitz is second from right.The small guard dog at the Beit Shirley residential and daycare facility in Dimona alerts …

Members of the first international geriatric tour visit projects to help elderly Bedouin men and women in Israel. Melabev founder Leah Abramowitz is second from right.The small guard dog at the Beit Shirley residential and daycare facility in Dimona alerts staff when one of its older residents falls. This is just one of many innovations that excited participants in the first International Geriatric Study Tour held recently in Israel.

“I learned at Beit Shirley about treating a person as a whole in a stimulating and beautifully designed environment,” says Karen Alexander, director of Eldercare Services in the United Jewish Communities of Metrowest New Jersey. “It is a pleasant place to spend time. It makes me think of improving the nursing facilities in my community.”

The tour was presented by the American Society on Aging (ASA), the largest organization of multidisciplinary professionals in the field of aging, which partnered with Melabev, an award-winning Jerusalem non-profit care agency for elderly people with Alzheimer’s disease. The program included three days of site visits to eldercare facilities, along with presentations by renowned lecturers.

“On my last trip with Melabev I was amazed by the energy and enthusiasm of the volunteers and professionals in Israel in this field,” ASA’s Amy Eisenstein tells ISRAEL21c. “I thought of bringing the innovations to the attention of other professionals to enable them to think outside the box.”

The tour was modeled after similar study tours offered to Israeli gerontology professionals and para professionals by the Geriatric Institute directed by Leah Abramowitz. The Geriatric Institute offers courses, workshops and site tours of facilities. Abramowitz thought of offering professionals from abroad a similar opportunity to learn about Israel’s quality services.

“We’re going on our expertise,” explains tour organizer Rakel Berenbaum of Melabev’s Resource Center. “In Israel’s compact area, its multicultural population has different approaches and frameworks for the elderly. While similar facilities may exist in the United States, they’re spread out in a much larger area. For the itinerary we looked for places that offer quality care with innovations that participants can learn from.”

The tour focused on agencies and programs as well as facilities and medical centers in Jerusalem and the Negev. Lecturers addressed such issues as a historical survey of Israeli geriatric care, the latest in Alzheimer’s care, and how different ethnic groups care for their elderly. Participants, hailing from the US, Australia, South Africa, the Ukraine and Israel, observed the various care approaches to Ethiopian, Russian and American immigrants, and the Druze and Bedouin.

“The baby parade for the older adults at the Melabev day center in Beit Shemesh was impressive, bringing joy and energy to the elderly,” Alexander says. This day center is Melabev’s newest for older adults with Alzheimer and other dementia-related illnesses.

Melabev, a Hebrew acronym also meaning “heart-warming”, operates eight other day centers throughout Jerusalem. Abramowitz was a geriatric social worker at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center when she founded Melabev with Prof. Arnold Rosin in 1981 in order to provide services for discharged patients with dementia, when services were inadequate for this population.

Melabev’s efforts ease the burden on families, enabling them to keep their elderly relatives in the warmth of the family home and in the familiar community for longer than might happen otherwise. By forestalling or preventing institutionalization, Melabev’s services are cost-effective for society at large.

Melabev centers provide a therapeutic and social framework which enhances the quality of life for those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease or similar disorders. Family members continue their daily activities, knowing their relatives receive excellent care in a supportive environment while enjoying activities like physiotherapy, occupational therapy, art, music, dance therapies, and cooking.

Melabev also runs memory clubs for those suffering from mild memory loss, a memory assessment clinic, and home care. Its counseling and support groups for family and caregivers are offered in a few languages for the city’s immigrant populations. Savyon, an innovative computer program developed at Melabev, helps activate patients and stimulate cognitive functions.

Melabev’s multi-faceted services are backed up by a devoted cadre of volunteers including retirees and healthy older adults who want to assist those less fortunate.

Volunteerism in Israel is a major ingredient in many thriving social enterprises. During the tour, the group visited Jerusalem’s Yad Sarah House, headquarters of Israel’s largest voluntary organization with 6,000 volunteers in 103 branches throughout the country.

Yad Sarah provides a range of free or nominal cost services designed to make life easier for sick, disabled and elderly people and their families, thus saving money for the government. “The volunteer guide at Yad Sarah had such a sense of pride in her volunteer work that I was wondering what we can do to inspire our volunteers to have such a sense of pride,” says Alexander.

“We had an outstanding taste of many aspects of care for older adults,” notes Paul Bennett, project director of the System’s Change Grant at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His research focuses on changing the system of services to older adults from nursing homes to home and community-based programs.

“In recent years the trend throughout the United States is towards nursing home diversion in order to save federal funds. It would be ideal if older adults in nursing homes could reenter and reestablish themselves in the community. At home the older adult doesn’t need services around the clock, but rather intermittent services,” he adds.

Bennett was particularly interested in a presentation by JDC-ESHEL, a non-profit organization founded and supported by the Israeli government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which strives to improve the status of the elderly in Israel through planning and developing new and innovative services

The organization has about 200 supportive communities that enable the elderly to remain in their own homes among friends and familiar surroundings as long as possible, even when they become frail, by delivering necessary services to their homes. “These communities have an av kehilla [community father] similar to a case manager. The av kehilla is almost like a son whom the older adults can turn to,” says Bennett.

In the US, the Natural Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) refers to a cohort of people with similar needs staying together, and so services can be coordinated. This is a growing trend among Jewish communities. Often these are places where community residents have either aged together and lived in their homes over several decades, or are the result of significant migrations of older adults into the same neighborhoods, where they intend to spend the rest of their lives.

“By participating in the tour and seeing many programs and ideas, I’m kept motivated,” notes ASA’s Eisenstein. Plans are already underway for a new study tour to the north next year.

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