As coronavirus spreads, many Israeli seniors stuck at home, isolated and afraid

As coronavirus spreads, many Israeli seniors stuck at home, isolated and afraid

Those in nursing homes are under lockdown and at risk of contagion, while those at home pass the time as best they can cut off from family, friends and activities

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Amid fears of coronavirus, senior citizens in Tel Aviv sit two meters apart on March 15, 2020. (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)
Amid fears of coronavirus, senior citizens in Tel Aviv sit two meters apart on March 15, 2020. (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Nili Keinan, 77, a retired nonprofit administrator from Tel Aviv, hasn’t left her apartment for the past few days, except to take out the trash.

“This isn’t normal for me.” she said. “Most days, I go to the pensioners’ club. We have exercise classes and lectures. I am part of a group that plays bridge. Now I am stuck at home for who knows how long? There’s no one who can tell us when this will be over.”

Keinan, who lives alone, is generally healthy and active, but she does have asthma and high blood pressure, so in these days of spreading coronavirus, she prefers to stay at home.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Health Ministry advised that all elderly or people with chronic health conditions should not leave the house at all. Others should leave only if they absolutely have to.

By Tuesday, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel had climbed to 337, up from 61 a week ago. Despite school and workplace closings and dramatic warnings from health officials to stay at home, many younger Israelis have in recent days used the time off to visit parks and beaches or buy takeout coffee while socializing on public benches, prompting an Israeli health ministry official to warn Tuesday that “people have not internalized the gravity of the situation. People are still behaving as if it’s a holiday… just stay at home.”

Despite a nationwide shutdown of restaurants, Tel Avivians could be seen on March 15, 2020, ordering takeout and sitting at nearby public tables (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

But for many elderly, defined in Israel as anyone over the age of 65, the warning has been heard loud and clear. Many avoid leaving their homes altogether, and all elder care homes are on lockdown, according to a spokesman for the Union of Nursing Homes.

According to data compiled from Chinese cases of the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, the death rate for those who contract coronavirus under 50 is less than 1 percent but for those aged 60-69 the death rate is 3.6%, for those aged 70-79 it is 8% and for those over 80 it is 14.8%.

“It’s scary, we know we’re in a high-risk group,”said Rachel Weissbrod, 70, a retired librarian from Rehovot. Her husband, aged 72, is employed as an electronic engineer in a neurobiology lab at Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute of Science.

“A few days ago they told him to work from home, because of his age.”

Nili Keinan, 77, of Tel Aviv rarely leaves her house amid the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus (Facebook)

Weissbrod and her husband like to attend lectures, films and the theater but nowadays they barely go out, with the exception of a brisk morning walk on unpopulated streets and an occasional trip to the supermarket.

“If there are crowds or a long line at the supermarket then we leave and come back later.”

By Tuesday afternoon, the Health Ministry had advised seniors not to go out for any purpose at all.

Weisbrod has a son whose partner is a doctor. She and her son have decided to speak only by phone. She also has a daughter with small children.

“It’s very hard for me not to see my grandchildren. Sometimes I missed them so much that I went to see them anyway even though I knew I shouldn’t.”

Weisbrod also works as a volunteer at the Center for Advice to Seniors of the National Insurance Institute (Bituah Leumi). She visits people older than herself to socialize and also helps them navigate the bureaucracy of obtaining government benefits. But the National Insurance Institute recently told volunteers that that has come to an end for now.

“They called off home visits and told us to make phone calls instead.”

The pandemic reaches nursing homes

Last week, a social worker at the Nofim nursing home in Jerusalem was discovered to have the coronavirus. She infected other staff and residents. The infection soon spread to staff at another nursing home, Nofei Yerushalayim.

Roni Ozeri, chairman of the Israeli Nursing Home Union, which represents most elder care facilities in Israel vis-a-vis the government, said through a spokesman that he believes nursing homes and assisted living facilities are on the edge of a precipice.

“For years there has been a shortage of workers. This has nothing to do with coronavirus. I’d say we are chronically about 6,000 workers short. The reason there was an outbreak in two institutions is because the same worker worked in both places. If our industry weren’t so short-staffed, she would have worked in just one place.”

Roni Ozeri, head of the Union of Nursing Homes (Ofer Amram)

The spokesman said that not just the infected woman but the entire staff of the nursing homes had to go into quarantine, as did the residents.

About 40,000 Israelis live in elder care homes, he said, of whom 27,000 require nursing care while the others are in assisted living.

Of the 27,000 who require nursing care, 70 percent are there because they could not afford a home caretaker. Their nursing care is subsidized by the state.

Tens of thousands of others elderly Israelis live at home, some independently, and some with a part-time or full-time caretaker, usually a foreign worker.

“Because we have a chronic worker shortage, when some workers are in quarantine, there is no one to replace them,” the spokesman lamented.

Ozeri’s spokesman said he would like to see the government take foreign workers who have a work visa, but whose industry, for instance, tourism, has collapsed, and have them come work in nursing homes. He said at present the law does not allow this kind of pivoting of foreign workers from one industry to another.

Elder care jobs pay above average, he said, about NIS 10,000 ($2,600) a month, and even more with overtime, but not enough Israelis want to do them.

“It’s a problem in all Western countries. It’s a hard job to lift and shower and take care of an elderly person. We’ve tried all kinds of groups of Israelis — Russian speakers, Arab Israelis, Bedouins, Ethiopians.They all end up dropping out.”

With the coronavirus, said the spokesman, some of the current workers are afraid to come to work.

“They don’t want to endanger families. They are supposed to be vital workers but we don’t get the masks and disinfectant and other protective equipment that hospitals and health clinics get. We don’t even have rooms for quarantining people. Our facilities are filled to capacity.”

The Nofim nursing home in Jerusalem, where a social worker infected other staff and residents with coronavirus in early March 2020 (Facebook)

All nursing homes and assisted living facilities in Israel are on lockdown, Ozeri’s spokesman said, not just the ones where people were exposed to the virus.

Ozeri’s spokesman said that in his experience, elderly Israelis understand the concept of social distancing but it’s emotionally hard for them.

“It is hard to be away from their families.”

Even within the nursing homes, there is social distancing.

“We have lots of social activities, but we are trying to make them smaller. At mealtimes, we let just ten people into the dining hall at once.”

The spokesman said that on March 5 his organization wrote to the government explaining that it lacks protective gear and equipment for their workers but has yet to hear back.

“The Health Ministry bought a large amount of equipment on the market, and now it’s only available for four times the price.”

Food outside the door

Gil Horev, a spokesman for the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services said that his ministry is now home delivering food to elderly people who need it.

“We bring food and leave it outside their doors. There is no person-to-person contact and that is for their protection.”

The ministry runs a network of 168 senior centers around the country for those seniors who do not live in nursing homes or assisted living communities. About 30,000 seniors attend these senior centers and their average age is about 80. The centers offer exercise classes, computer classes, art classes and free hot meals.

But due to the outbreak of COVID-19, these senior centers have all been temporarily shuttered.

“The employees call on a daily basis to check if seniors are okay. They can visit their homes once a week as well if necessary. If seniors need anything, they should call our hotline at 118.”

Horev said that at least four senior centers, in Ramat Gan, Kiryat Motzkin and two other cities, have launched an online program offering sports classes and even consultation with a social worker over the Internet.

“The four centers are a pilot program. We started it before the coronavirus outbreak.”

Reading, cooking and playing keyboard

Meanwhile, seniors stuck at home are occupying themselves as best they can.

Rachel Weisbrod playing keyboard at home on March 17, 2020 (Courtesy)

“If I need something one of my three children brings it and leaves it outside the door,” Nili Keinan told the Times of Israel. “Only one of my kids has decided he wants to come inside. I don’t see my grandchildren.”

Keinan said she washes her hands a lot and spends her days reading books, playing bridge on her computer, talking on the telephone and getting creative in the kitchen.

“I’m cooking more than I’ve cooked in a long time.”

For her part, Rachel Weisbrod said she spends her time watching television, solving crossword puzzles, reading and playing the electronic keyboard.

“It’s worrying,” she told The Times of Israel, “we’re in a high-risk age group. It stresses us out, but we try not to think about it all the time.”

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