Israels Yad Sarah makes volunteering with elderly a national pastime

It is a winter afternoon in Jerusalem, but inside the Shikumon, Yad Sarah’s Day Rehabilitation Center, the atmosphere is warm and spirits are high as clients and volunteers prepare to celebrate Chanukah.

Close to 200 people will arrive today; some will come in wheelchairs, some on crutches, and many with the assistance of a nechonit, a wheelchair-accessible van driven by a volunteer. The participants are greeted by other volunteers and can look forward to a day’s activities, including art therapy, horticulture, music and more, while their families take a break from the often overwhelming responsibilities of caregiving.

The Shikumon is just one service offered by Yad Sarah, and in honor of Chanukah, all those who have spent the year learning to paint or use a computer or socialize again after an accident or illness can gather together to celebrate.

Volunteers in Israel are providing care and equipment to an often unacknowledged demographic, and other countries are catching on. The attention Yad Sarah has paid to Israel’s aging population is making other countries increasingly aware of their own seniors, and innovations in family caregiving have become Israel’s latest export.

Yad Sarah, Israel’s largest volunteer-staffed organization, helps Israelis to meet their mandate with creative and innovative programs and services. These programs are designed to support the efforts of families caring for the frail elderly, the homebound, the injured and disabled, victims of terror and children with special needs. With more than 6,000 volunteers spread across 103 branches, Yad Sarah offers a vital array of health and home care support services, caring for more than 380,000 people last year, and saving the country $300 million in hospital fees and long-term care costs.

“Home is best,” says Helen Hamlin, a New York-based social work consultant who has had a long career in the field of aging services, and is now the main representative of the International Federation of Aging to the United Nations. “Yad Sarah helps people who can’t afford appliances that they need. As there are more people but not as many nursing home beds, in-home services become in demand, and it becomes more important than ever to be sure they are available.”

Long before he became the mayor of Jerusalem, Yad Sarah founder Uri Lupolianski was a young high school teacher who needed to borrow a vaporizer from a neighbor for a sick child. Discovering that such appliances were hard to find, he bought a few to lend to others, and people started dropping off items they no longer needed. His small apartment was soon overflowing with a variety of the kind of things people often need for only a short time: crutches, walkers, vaporizers and wheelchairs.

From that humble beginning, an organization soon grew. In 1976, using the funds from the sale of his father’s shop, Lupolianski incorporated his “chesed vision” as the Yad Sarah Organization, named after his paternal grandmother Sarah, who had perished in the Holocaust. Over time, that little stockpile has become Israel’s largest lending service, with a vast inventory of medical equipment. Yad Sarah can provide more than 300,000 items and more than 150 types of equipment, with 175,000 loans each year.

Though best known for the lending program, Yad Sarah also helps adults and children recover and restore independent functioning in its day clinics, advocates for victims of elder abuse and boasts a dental clinic that is one of the few in the world specializing in geriatric care.

Besides being a resource for the homebound, Yad Sarah’s support is significant to the family caregivers. That support is twofold, coming in the form of both useful services and emotional sustenance. Counseling is available, as is instructive assistance. “Caregiving can be an omnipresent part of the individual’s reality, yet invisible to the outside world,” says Rabbi Dayle Friedman, director of Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

Yad Sarah also provides personal alarm systems, Meals-on-Wheels and outreach to the homebound. The volunteer-operated vans give less mobile people a chance to get out, go to medical appointments and social occasions, or simply run errands.

Allen Glicksman, the director of research and evaluation at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging and the former president of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, believes there is a “vital need” in Israel for the services provided by Yad Sarah.

“Israel has not historically had a strong voluntary sector,” he says, but Yad Sarah has recognized a gap in eldercare and is “helping alleviate a lot of the problems that have been identified in recent studies” — studies that suggest that the interests of Israel’s seniors are being neglected.

“If you’ve ever traveled in Israel with someone in a wheelchair, that’s when it really hits you how many steps there are,” Glicksman says, adding that even when there are elevators, they are often so small that it is impossible to fit both a person in a wheelchair and whoever is assisting him.

As life expectancy increases in Israel and other developed countries, the size of the older population is surging. With about 670,000 older people in Israel — making up nearly 10 percent of the population — the rate of growth of the elderly has been double that of the general population.

“The wave of aging means that we have in many families two generations of people that can be categorized as old,” says Friedman. With this rapid growth, opportunities for dependency episodes increase with advanced age.

According to Hamlin, Yad Sarah can be an antidote to that struggle: “I think that the program is wonderful as it provides real service in a very tangible way in order to meet problems that crop up when least expected, or are there when people become less functional and need more support. Yad Sarah fills a need that people don’t know they are going to have.”

Yad Sarah has long been a model for the delivery of home and health care assistance to a frail and vulnerable population. The organization has branches across Israel, from the main cities to development towns and Arab villages, and a recent survey found that one out of every two Israeli families has been helped by Yad Sarah.

The model is also being emulated abroad. “The whole concept of Yad Sarah is suitable for export,” says Hamlin. Currently, Yad Sarah is participating in the development of a lending center in Amman. There are locations with lending centers in the former Soviet Union, and recently Yad Sarah helped establish a rehabilitative medical equipment program for victims of Angola’s civil war. The organization has been included on an advisory body to the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council.

“It’s the old-fashioned Yiddishe-kop at work,” says Lorraine Skupsky, a friend of Yad Sarah from Denver, Colo. “A grassroots organization grows into the equivalent of a mega-store by responding to the simple needs of older people in the community to provide care and keep their relatives at home, which is where they want to be.”

For more information about Yad Sarah services, call 1-866-YAD-SARAH or visit