Survey: Nearly a Quarter of Israeli Seniors Struggle to Get By

There is an undercurrent of ageism even though up to age 80, nearly half of the country's elderly help out their children and only 22% receive assistance

Nurit Wurgaft
Nurit Wurgaft
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Many elderly in Israel are having trouble making ends meet.
Many elderly in Israel are having trouble making ends meet. Credit: Meirav Moran
Nurit Wurgaft
Nurit Wurgaft

As it does every year, the Central Bureau of Statistics published two collections of data to mark International Old People’s Day (which in politically correct terms is called Senior Citizens’ Day). We can start with the good news: Most of the elderly in Israel (87 percent) were satisfied with their lives in the past year, and 31 percent even said that they were very satisfied. Joy and gladness.

According to the statistics, in a parallel Israel, 23 percent of those same elderly people can’t make ends meet. That means they scrimp on heating, food and health care – they don’t visit the doctor when necessary and don’t take medications. According to the poverty report, the percentage of the elderly living below the poverty line has increased to 22 percent – double their percentage of the population.

Among those who do make ends meet (76 percent), only a minority does so without any difficulty. This figure is deceptive in itself, since in Israel there is a high percentage (about 20 percent) of “senior citizens” who continue to work even after retirement age (62 for women, 67 for men). If we look only at those up to the age of 70, the percentage is much higher – 43 percent. In the OECD countries as a whole, the grouping of the world's developed countries, including Israel, the rate is in the single digits.

We generally believe that most of those who continue to work are employed in desirable jobs, and are working of their own free will. Tell that to the cleaning women whom you see in public places. (Yes, most of them are women.) They do hard work, sometimes for many hours a day, only so that they can say in the survey that they make ends meet. Truly joy and gladness.

It’s also customary to present the women who can already retire at 62 as pampered, if not exploitative; people who don’t hesitate to burden the dwindling coffers of the country's old-line pension funds. In that case, it’s not clear why in the Civil Service of all places there are programs that encourage early retirement (for men too), by means of handsome bonuses.

Any woman who continues to work until age 67 will lose the bonus. That being the case, it’s hard not to suspect that the government wants us to continue to work, but only in jobs that nobody else wants.And what about those who don’t work? Most of them, 52 percent, survive on state allowances, the support of family members, or an unknown source.

The basic old-age pension from the National Insurance Institute is 1,554 shekels ($442) per person at present. “An unknown source,” permit me to guess, is the many soup kitchens and food pantries, and yes, garbage cans in the marketplaces too. How does all that square with the rates of joy and gladness? It’s not clear, but that’s how it is here in the parallel Israel.

Contributing to poverty

For some reason, the wretchedness of the old-age pensions, which contribute significantly to poverty, are accepted as a divine decree. Journalist Shahar Ilan wrote in the business daily Calcalist that one reason why the pensions are so low, in his opinion, is that the employers play only a 7.5 percent employers’ tax, compared to an average of 19 percent in the OECD. “With all the desire not to increase the employers’ costs, this situation is illogical and unjust, and we should examine the possibility of increasing the employers’ payments by one or two percentage points, for the sake of their employees’ future.”

Israel is a relatively young country. When it was founded, only 4 percent of its citizens were 65 and older. Perhaps that is why we often speak about aging in terrifying terms, such as “a tsunami of old people.” Oy vey – the number of elderly has crossed the one million mark. For some reason, everyone accepts the basic assumption that a lot of old people is a bad thing.

Ageist terms

Even some of the terms used by the CBS (which wanted to celebrate Senior Citizens’ Day) are ageist terms. For example, according to the chapter on demographics, “the dependency ratio of people aged 65 and above is now about 0.23, and is expected to increase by 2040 to 0.30.” And to anyone who didn’t understand: “The elderly population is expected to constitute a bigger burden on the working age population.” That’s not a mistake. For the layman it was explained in a footnote that the dependency ratio measures “the extent to which the working age population supports the elderly population. A dependency ratio of over 1.0 means that there are more people being supported than there are supporters.”

So first of all, it’s worth recalling this formula for the next Senior Citizen’s Day, in which once again the question will arise as to whether the elderly have experienced discrimination (19 percent this year). Second, that’s an interesting way of looking at over a million people, some of whom work, with many years of work and successful careers behind them, as though they are all being supported by the young.

A young man recently complained to me in that spirit, that he and his kind are bearing the burden because thre are already fewer people of working age relative to the elderly. While he was speaking, he sent a message to his father asking if the father could pick up his son from kindergarten and drop off his daughter at her basketball practice, and, if possible, buy them pizza on the way “because we didn’t have time to buy food.” Thanks Dad.

On the giving side

According to the figures of a SHARE survey (Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe), up to the age of 80 the elderly are usually on the giving side more than on the receiving side. The survey, which was conducted by Hebrew University’s Information Center for Research on Aging in Israel, found that 43 percent of the elderly up to the age of 80 give their children monetary assistance or the equivalent (transportation, child care), and only 22 percent receive assistance. So what’s the whining about – that at the age of 80 Grandma is somewhat less available?

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