Israel’s geriatrics study tour inspires professionals

At the Beit Shirley senior residential and day care facility in Dimona, the staff has installed motion sensors to help cut falling incidents by half. But it’s the addition of a backup system that caught the attention of visitors participating in the first International Geriatric Study Tour in Israel — small dogs have been trained to notify staff when an older resident falls. These same dogs also do double duty at Beit Shirley during physical therapy, providing a lighter atmosphere to encourage greater participation by its senior clientele.

“It is a pleasant place to spend time. It makes me think of improving the nursing facilities in my community,” said Karen Alexander, director of Eldercare Services in the United Jewish Communities of Metrowest New Jersey.

Nearly a dozen eldercare professionals and paraprofessionals spent three days in January on a whirlwind tour of Jerusalem, Beersheva and Dimona, visiting day-care centers, sheltered housing arrangements and full-service facilities; listening to lecturers addressing such topics as how different ethnic groups care for their elderly and innovations in Alzheimer’s care, and learning about new developments in aging-related services.

The Jan. 8-10 tour was jointly organized by the American Society on Aging (ASA), one of the largest U.S. organizations of multidisciplinary professionals in the field of aging, and Melabev, an award-winning Jerusalem nonprofit care agency for elderly people with Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases.

“On my last trip with Melabev I was amazed by the energy and enthusiasm of the volunteers and professionals in Israel in this field,” said Amy Eisenstein, an ASA representative and education coordinator with Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “I thought of bringing the innovations to the attention of other professionals to enable them to think outside the box.”

“We’re going on our expertise,” tour co-coordinator Rakel Berenbaum of Melabev’s Resource Center said. “In Israel’s compact area, its multicultural population has different approaches and frameworks for the elderly. While similar facilities may exist in the United States, they’re spread out in a much larger area. For the itinerary we looked for places that offer quality care with innovations that participants can learn from.”

Those participating in the tour hailed from the United States, Australia, South Africa, the Ukraine and Israel, and qualifying participants earned 30 continuing education units from the National Association of Social Workers.

“We had an outstanding taste of many aspects of care for older adults,” said Paul Bennett, project director of the System’s Change Grant at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Bennett’s research focuses on changing the system of services to older adults from nursing homes to home and community-based programs.

“In recent years the trend throughout the United States is towards nursing home diversion in order to save federal funds. It would be ideal if older adults in nursing homes could reenter and reestablish themselves in the community. At home the older adult doesn’t need services around the clock, but rather intermittent services,” he added.

Bennett was particularly interested in a presentation by JDC-ESHEL, a nonprofit organization founded and supported by the Israeli government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which strives to improve the status of the elderly in Israel through planning and developing new and innovative services.

The organization has about 200 supportive communities that enable the elderly to remain in their own homes among friends and familiar surroundings as long as possible, even when they become frail, by delivering necessary services to their homes. “These communities have an av kehilla [community father] similar to a case manager. The av kehilla is almost like a son whom the older adults can turn to,” Bennett said.

Tour co-sponsor Melabev, a Hebrew acronym that means “heart-warming,” operates nine day centers throughout Jerusalem. The organization’s efforts ease the burden on families, enabling them to keep elderly relatives with dementia in the warmth of the family home and in the familiar community for longer than might happen otherwise. By forestalling or preventing institutionalization, Melabev’s services are considered a cost-effective strategy.

The centers provide a therapeutic and social framework that enhances the quality of life for those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease or similar disorders. Family members continue their daily activities, knowing their relatives receive care in a supportive environment while enjoying activities like physiotherapy, occupational therapy, art, music, dance therapies and cooking.

Melabev also runs memory clubs for those suffering from mild memory loss, a memory assessment clinic and home care. The centers’ counseling and support groups for family and caregivers are offered in a few languages for the city’s immigrant populations. Savyon, an innovative computer program developed at Melabev, helps activate patients and stimulate cognitive functions.

The centers’ multifaceted services are backed up by a devoted cadre of volunteers, including retirees and healthy older adults who want to assist those less fortunate.

Volunteerism in Israel is a major ingredient in many thriving social enterprises. During the tour, the group visited Jerusalem’s Yad Sarah House, headquarters of Israel’s largest voluntary organization with 6,000 volunteers in 103 branches throughout the country.

Yad Sarah provides a range of free or nominal cost services designed to make life easier for sick, disabled and elderly people and their families, thus saving money for the government.

“The volunteer guide at Yad Sarah had such a sense of pride in her volunteer work that I was wondering what we can do to inspire our volunteers to have such a sense of pride,” Alexander said.

Plans are already under way for a new study tour to northern Israel next year.

“By participating in the tour and seeing many programs and ideas, I’m kept motivated,” ASA’s Eisenstein said.

Amy Eisenstein will give a presentation about the tour and provide details about a 2009 tour at the American Society on Aging and the National Council on Aging conference ( in Washington, D.C., March 26-30.