From Lockdown to Loneliness: Old Age in the Age of Coronavirus

The outbreak of Covid-19 has placed over one million people aged 65 and over at high risk of contracting the novel virus, yet these trying times have also created challenges for the elderly population that are no less dangerous to them – which must be resolved. JDC’s Eshel partnership focusing on the elderly has already launched its mission to tackle these challenges, head-on

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The first challenge is maintaining and improving functioningCredit: Tamir Altman
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For over a month, Israel has been coping with the Coronavirus pandemic. While everyone is talking about the health and economic crises, dialogue about the developing social crisis has taken a backseat. “Much has been said about the elderly population being in danger, but mandatory isolation for the purpose of protecting them from the virus creates other problems,” says Yossi Heymann, CEO of JDC’s Eshel partnership between the JDC (the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) and the Government of Israel for the development of social services and innovative solutions for the aging population. Over the years, the organization has developed many pilots that formed Israel’s social services, including day centers, supportive communities, warm homes, abuse prevention units, and more. And now, JDC has identified three central challenges that the elderly population is contending with, made prominent during the Coronavirus outbreak.

Physical and cognitive functioning

The first challenge is maintaining and improving functioning. “While the general population will know how to leave home-isolation and return to the daily grind, when it comes to the elderly population, especially those seniors who suffer from physical and cognitive challenges, the reality is different,” Heymann says. “The younger population is physically capable of recovering from the crisis, is much more digitally savvy, and additional social circles enable a faster return to normal. Yet, when it comes to the older population, a lack of routine and activity is likely to cause a significant dip in their physical functioning, due to a weakening of their bone density and muscle mass. The same goes for their social functioning, due to a reduction in their social circles and a lack of digital awareness likely to impair their social and cognitive functioning, increase their loneliness, promote despair, and even lead to depression.”

Citizens aged 65 and up are considered part of the at-risk populationCredit: Tamir Altman

Even before the Coronavirus began to spread, geriatric rehabilitation centers established by JDC-Eshel with the Health Ministry, took action to maintain and improve the aging population’s functioning. In addition, approaches to providing remote rehabilitation services to those unable to travel to the centers were being examined – a process that has been accelerated due to the pandemic. In recent weeks, professionals began providing remote rehabilitation services via the computer, television, or telephone. “The use of technology is critical and requires the service systems and professionals, as well as the patients, to adapt to the new normal. Even before the Coronavirus, we learned how senior citizens learn to use digital tools, and we developed dedicated courses for this population, together with Israel’s Digital Headquarters within the Ministry for Social Equality. This knowledge is currently being taught to companies and volunteers, in order to help those who struggle to use digital tools, even from afar,” noted experts within JDC-Eshel say.

Suddenly senior

The increase in life expectancy has created a new age bracket in Israel – those who are labeled as “elderly” according to the law, but who continue to function, retain their independence and desire and are capable of continuing to create and contribute to society. In the age of Coronavirus, citizens aged 65 and up are considered part of the at-risk population, despite the fact that, under normal circumstances, they are fully functioning and independent. “We must understand that the integration of people aged 65 and up in the workforce is a strategic move, with respect to rehabilitating the economy. The Coronavirus highlights the issue that we cannot continue to allow a situation in which two decades separate the age of retirement from the average life expectancy,” Heymann stresses. “We developed a system of pilots around retirement prior to the pandemic, and are now acting to transition it to a virtual campus for self management, for the purpose of enabling the planning of this new period in life with respect to financial education and dedicated skills acquisition, so that this population can re-integrate into the workforce, as well as into other aspects of life.”

Improving support circles

Similar to other developed countries, the majority of Israel’s citizens (97%) age at home. There are many support circles that enable optimal aging that include professionals from the fields of social services, nursing, healthcare, culture, family, volunteers, and others. JDC-Eshel, in conjunction with the Ministries of Health, Labor, Social Affairs & Social Services, Social Equality, the National Insurance Institute, The Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Charitable Foundation and Teva Pharmaceuticals, have established a dedicated website that includes materials for the Coronavirus age for professionals, caregivers and volunteers, as well as for the senior citizens themselves.

Credit: JDC-Israel Eshel

Webinars and dedicated courses were also developed, as well as professional training seminars for additional staff members at the institutions. These programs were developed in conjunction with the Ministry of Health and the Association of Nursing Homes and Assisted Living in Israel, in light of gaps developed as a result of the isolation of existing staff members.

As we endeavor to cope with the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, we must consider the health and financial perspectives without ignoring social perspectives.

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