Aging gracefully - voluntarily
On seeing Ahuzat Poleg (Poleg Estate) for the first time, one feels a mix of attraction and shock at the growing retirement village for "youngsters aged 60 and over."
On seeing Ahuzat Poleg (Poleg Estate) for the first time, one feels a mix of attraction and shock at the growing retirement village for "youngsters aged 60 and over," as the ad says, which opened some three years ago next to Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak. It is a cross between an exclusive suburb (like the white neighborhoods in South Africa) and a luxurious resort. It consists of uniform rows of small houses with red-tiled roofs and paths of colorful flora squares. The enticing swimming pool; modeled on that of country clubs for the wealthy; is surrounded by grass and has all of the latest exercise equipment and spa facilities. A fence surrounds the whole village and a guard is stationed at the gated entrance.
On the one hand, it seems that the residents, who recently reached retirement age, have found a place of tranquility, security and relaxation; there is nothing to complain about. On the other hand, it is reminiscent of the suburban nightmare depicted in the film, "The Truman Show." According to this version, retirement age is not just the age of retirement from work, but also from society. Citizens who turn 65 leave en masse for isolated senior-citizen communities such as this one. The diverse cities are emptied of old people and they remain cities for the young alone. And it is all done voluntarily, without force.
Of course, not everyone gets to enjoy surroundings where there is a spa, a pool and bougainvillea. The poor among the elderly remain in old-fashioned, old-age homes. The rich among them receive good conditions at the exclusive, new and expensive assisted-living facilities, such as Palace, in Tel Aviv, Ahuzat Rishonim in Rishon Letzion, Protea in the Village in the Sharon region and Seven Stars House (Beit Shivat Hakochavim) in Herzliya Pituah and some of the Mishan chain's renovated homes. That's it. From here, as Dr. Haim Burkoff, one of the Ahuzat Poleg residents, says, "you leave only to go to the cemetery on the other side of the road."
Every man for himself
This is not a new phenomenon - there are some who note that it started in Israel ten years ago if not more - but it has certainly been gaining ground in recent years: More and more vital and active retirement-age people, some of whom are still salaried wage-earners, are choosing to leave their homes and their familiar and diverse surroundings and are moving into relatively homogenous (as far as age is concerned) assisted-living facilities.
Aryeh Shore, the director general of Ahuzat Poleg, estimates that 15,000 Israelis today live in assisted-living facilities in Israel and another 35,000 in what he calls "institutional solutions." The previous name used for such places - "old-age homes" - is no longer appropriate, and not just because it does not sound good in the marketing era. An old-age home is where children deposit their mothers and fathers. Parents come on their own volition to assisted-living facilities.
That is exactly the gist of the trend: In any case, it is no longer acceptable to live in a multi-generational home, consisting of a large and diverse family of grandparents and grandchildren. Everything is being broken down into small familial cells, each on their own. Thus older people prefer to have control over the transition into the last stage of their lives. They want to shape this transition according to their wishes and worldview and prevent the possibility of the transition being imposed on them by their relatives, because there is no other alternative. For example, Zemira Yekutiel, 72, is today the director of the Get Acquainted with Tel Aviv Center and in the past was the director of the Tel Aviv branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Yekutiel chose around a year ago to leave the apartment on Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Boulevard that she had lived in for 55 years. She moved to Palace, an assisted-living facility near the city's Ichilov Hospital, which is a luxury residential building designed like a grand hotel ("copied piece by piece from the Ritz Hotel in Florida," according to Irit Pasternak, the deputy director general of marketing) and situated on top of a new and bustling mall.
"Two years ago," says Yekutiel, "11 years after my husband died, I severely broke my leg twice. It was very hard for me to climb 50 stairs to reach my apartment. I was restricted. And that was the straw that broke the camel's back. I decided to move to an assisted-living facility even though I could ostensibly have moved to a new apartment in a building with an elevator. But I didn't have the emotional strength to build a new home from scratch. I thought it would be better to take this step right away, while I can be in control and decided where I want to live the rest of my life. I don't want someone else to decide for me."
For Yekutiel, a Tel Avivian through and through, the option of living in an assisted-living facility in the center of the city was perfect. "I can't be outside of Tel Aviv," she explains, "and here I am in the center of town - everything is in walking distance. I have a subscription to the symphony and I like operas and walk to the Performing Arts Center. After a leisurely 20-minute walk, I can also get to Ben-Gurion Boulevard, where I lived most of my life. All my friends are nearby. I wasn't cut off from the fabric of my life."
The shocking transition
Pnina Dvir, in her late 60's, a small, energetic woman and nurse by profession, moved around eight years ago from her home in Holon's Rassco villa neighborhood to Ahuzat Rishonim (Pioneers Estate), a relatively older residence (10 years old) located in a suburb of Rishon Letzion high-rise towers, atop a very practical mall (with a supermarket, bank, post office, shoemaker, tailor, hairdresser, cosmetician, Laundromat, flower shop and stationery store.)
Dvir chose to live in an assisted-living facility after mourning the death of her partner. "I was very depressed, afraid to sleep alone at night," she says openly while sitting in her small and pleasant apartment. "I was afraid, because for me being together with someone, meant being together 24 hours a day. Today I realize there is an element that is not positive in that. That even being together with someone, you have to learn to be alone. With us it was a merger."
After the death of her partner (this was the second loss she experienced, following the death of her husband, Aharon Dvir, 22 years ago), Pnina stopped sleeping at home. "When I would open the door of the home, I would enter, see the empty space, see that no one was waiting for me, no one was there to greet me, and I would run away to a place of refuge - my car. At difficult moments, I would drive the car to the beach, to the Tel Aviv promenade, to Bat Yam. The waves were good for me. I would see in my mind's eye my husband sitting beside me and telling me, 'look at the power of nature, of the sea.' I reminded myself to draw strength from these sights."
For about three months, Dvir slept every night in her car, until "one day, my neighbor came out early one morning for some reason to empty his garbage and was surprised to see me. 'What are you doing in the car,' he asked. The secret was out. With the help of psychiatric treatment I recovered and realized that I had to take my fate in my own hands. After looking at 10 assisted-living facilities, I came here, to Ahuzat Rishonim, a place I had visited with my partner, Moshe, around three months before he died. Already then, we had thought about moving together to such a place at some point. We thought we didn't want to become a burden on the children. That too is a major consideration, I have to say. And I have to say that the transition at first was a shock. But very quickly I received so much warmth and support here and I met so many nice people - that the initial shock wore off."
Yekutiel asked not to idealize her voluntary move to an assisted-living facility. "Leaving the house and the things - especially the books - is very difficult. It's a very painful thing. In a 120-meter apartment, I had a huge library. Here in a 53-meter apartment, I don't have room. And I also don't have the large and spacious balcony I had at home. When I came here, I also didn't like the style of the furniture in the public spaces. It took me a long time to be able to say, 'I'm going home,' in reference to this place. But okay. If someone tells you the world is perfect - don't believe it. But if you manage to reach a certain minimum - and here it's a lot more than that - you are very lucky."
For Shoshana Burkoff, 70 and her husband, Haim, 73, the move from a large home in Ra'anana to a smaller home in Ahuzat Poleg was not easy. Shoshana had pleaded with Haim to move into an assisted-living facility and, as far as she is concerned, the change has not been major. "Even in Ra'anana I was addicted to swimming in the pool. Now I can spend as much time there as I want."
Haim, on the other hand, was very worried about the move. In the past, he was the personal secretary of Zionist Executive member Zvi Luria and a Zionist Executive emissary to Panama and Guatemala. Today he is a clinical psychologist specializing in treating adolescents and he is also the head of the youth treatment department at Beit Berl College. "I was worried - how would they take it, the students, the patients, when they find out that I live in an old age home?"
Ostensibly, technically speaking, there are no problems. The Burkoffs' new home in Ahuzat Poleg has four rooms - including an office that is used as a clinic (and when the time comes can also be used as a bedroom for an ill spouse; and there is also another room, on the second floor, intended for a caretaker.) In other words, this is actually a small and spacious home in every respect. And nevertheless, the move to an assisted-living facility cost Dr. Burkoff some patients. "I don't have the same number of patients, yes. But I knew that whoever I was important to would make the effort to follow me here."
Burkoff is proud of the fact that he still goes to work at Beit Berl and still receives patients at Ahuzat Poleg. He believes there is no obligation to disengage from the fabric of life and from society at large when moving into an old age home. But he does indeed plan to cut down his working hours and take advantage of the huge selection of activities assisted-living offers him. You could say that to a large extent, he plans to converge and disengage. Because, he prefers as he says, to take advantage of the opportunities available here before it is too late. Even the grandchildren come to visit more often than in the past - thanks in no small measure to the pool and other comforts.
And the same is true of Yekutiel and Dvir. They try to limit their outside activities and participate in the full schedule of programs and classes at their assisted-living facilities. To a certain extent, these places look like Club Med style hotels, which see vacations - or retirement - as a series of endless activity. Lectures, crafts classes, music lessons, bone-strengthening exercise classes, tai chi, meditation, swimming in the pool, yoga, concerts and the most popular activity - bridge. Rooms full of green felt covered tables are the most dominant and vibrant places in these assisted-living facilities. Dvir is a little worried about that. Bridge games consume too much time, in her opinion, and come at the expense of more cultural engagements; but even she admits - "people look happy here. They play for hours. They forget the world."
Incidentally, Dvir, Yekutiel and Burkoff note that the exclusive assisted-living facilities - following the model of active resorts - are not for everyone. Of course, not everyone wants to live in a homogeneous environment with respect to age - of 70-year-olds and over. Not everyone is a suburban type. Not everyone is a social animal.
And in any case, not everyone can allow himself this type of organized exile. Apartments in Palace, for example, require between $200,000-600,000 for a deposit (which declines over a 10-year period at a 3-percent rate and the family receives whatever is left) as well as another $1,200-1,800 per month in maintenance and servicing fees (depending on the size of the apartment.) In Ahuzat Poleg, the deposits run from $290,000-360,000 and the monthly maintenance is $1,100. Dvir paid a $155,000 deposit at Ahuzat Rishonim and she pays $4,500 a month in maintenance which includes everything: medical supervision and constant monitoring, panic buttons, technical assistance, weekly cleaning and plenty of classes and activities.