Israels elderly beginning to find their voice

jerusalem | They number as many as one in every 10 Israelis, but it wasn’t until this past summer that Israel’s over-65s were finally given a voice.

The name of that voice, a cadenced Ken La-Zaken — which translates approximately as Yes to the Elderly — is the brainchild of veteran Israeli social worker Nathan Lavon, himself now a robust 72 years old and the founder of Ossim Shalom (Making Peace) — Social Workers for Peace and Social Welfare.

“I’ve spent my entire working life trying to help people and secure them the benefits to which they’re entitled,” he says.

“When I found myself suddenly grown old, I decided it was time to focus on the rights of the elderly. I wanted to give them somewhere effective to turn, whether their problem is with supplements, pensions, benefits or rates, with affordable nursing-home care, improving the local bus service, ensuring access to a local clinic, or putting a railing on a rickety staircase.”

Ken La-Zaken, an ombudsman organization for Jerusalem’s 7,000 over-65s, carries Lavon’s imprint. He easily secured full budgeting from the Jerusalem Foundation (which has been involved in the project’s development and implementation from the outset and has representatives on its board) and has many longtime friends and colleagues among the volunteers who run it — including social workers, lawyers and bureaucrats.

Launched at a time of slashed welfare budgets, eroding pensions and a rapidly growing elderly population, the organization’s official opening was in July. Currently staffed by some 40 volunteers, the organization listens, advises, refers, actively helps and, when necessary, takes up legal or lobbying cudgels about issues ranging from housing to health care, leisure to public safety, and welfare payments to supplementary benefits.

“We’re active on three levels,” says Bianca Yoel, Ken La-Zaken coordinator and one of its two paid employees. “First, we respond to individuals. They contact us via a free hotline at the Jerusalem Foundation with questions, problems or complaints. The half-dozen volunteers manning the line either respond on the spot or refer the callers to one of our experts.”

Almost 150 calls have been fielded since its opening, with the numbers climbing rapidly. Many of the calls have come from people confused about changes in the law concerning a reduction in rates paid by the elderly. “The city has sent out letters explaining the new law, but many people don’t understand them,” says Yoel. “Even those who do are uncertain whether or not they qualify or, if they do, how to get reimbursed. We guide them through the process — show them which forms they need, how to fill them out and where to send them.”

Guidance alone, however, is not sufficient for all problems brought to its door, and sometimes the organization helps institute legal action. “There are two suits currently filed,” says Yoel. One is a landlord-tenant case, while the other concerns an elderly man who was conned out of money.

In other instances, Ken La-Zaken has used publicity to good effect. “We received a call from an elderly woman who loves music,” says Yoel. “She enjoys concerts at the Jerusalem Music Center in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, near where she lives, but has great difficulty accessing the building because of the stairs. We approached the music center, the city and the media on her behalf, asking that secure handrails be added. After Jerusalem News interviewed the lady, the music center promised to put up a handrail along the steps by its entrance.”

The group also takes community action. “We are currently campaigning on behalf of the many elderly people in the Nahla’ot neighborhood as the nearest clinic for these people is in the city center, a 10- to 15-minute walk away, with a very poor bus service connecting the two. This creates enormous and needless hardship for a lot of people. We’re demanding either that a local clinic be opened or an efficient bus service be instituted.”

In addition, Ken La-Zaken’s national outreach is impacting all Israel’s aging population.

“We are a voice for the elderly at the national policymaking level,” says Yoel. “We write to and meet with policymakers, contributing our knowledge and expertise. We lobby Knesset members, Cabinet ministers and the prime minister for adequate welfare benefits for the elderly, nursing-home care, housing, assisted living, reduction in rates and income maintenance.

“Many benefits have been abolished in recent years, the value of pensions has shrunk, and there is growing poverty among elderly Israelis. We see our job as making the government aware of this and protecting our senior members.”

The number of over-65s in Israel is expected to grow twice as fast as the general population to reach over a million by 2020. “Despite the considerable financial burden this will create, the elderly are Israeli citizens, just like everyone else,” says Lavon, “and our nation should take care of all its people. … It’s important to remember that our work has only just begun.”