The physicians and dentists on the seventh annual UJA Federation of Greater Toronto medical mission last year were greeted by a man who introduced himself this way: “I am a retired professor of anthropology.
Rather than pursuing something in my field when I made aliyah, I decided to volunteer in a pursuit I loved all my life – woodworking. It has marvelously fulfilled my dreams and ambitions.”
He was doing his woodworking in a workshop for seniors in Jerusalem called Yad LaKashish (Lifeline for the Old), a program that has provided supportive employment for seniors and people with disabilities for more than 40 years.
There are sheltered workshops in Canada, and there are arts and crafts programs in many organizations, including Baycrest. People on the tour with me asked if I knew of any programs like the one we were visiting. I could not recall any of this nature in Toronto or elsewhere in Ontario or Canada that provide a support system with financial, social, linguistic and community interventions as part of their mandate.
As a nation of immigrants, Israel absorbs individuals from countries around the world. Many of the elderly immigrants face enormous educational and language challenges, and it’s very important to have a place where they can go and feel valued. Social networks and a sense of belonging have been shown to be crucial to older people in helping them maintain their physical and emotional well-being.
We met immigrants from the former Soviet Union who spoke rudimentary Hebrew, but I was able to communicate with them using my very rusty Yiddish. A big smile spread across the face of an elderly woman when I commended her work in Yiddish as she ironed silk-screened scarves and challah covers.
Elderly Ethiopian immigrants coloured greeting cards and put the finishing touches on tallitot, using skills they knew from their home country. In another room, men were finely painting gift boxes and wooden plaques, while in the room supervised by the retired anthropologist, people were using power tools to produce scrolled napkin rings.
What is unique about this program is the concept of providing a place for older people to go to avoid loneliness, while at the same time, providing a way to be productive, earn some money, and receive a range of social services and one very welcome robust hot meal a day.
Innovative and creative programs like Yad LaKashish can be a model to be explored by organizations that care for elderly Canadians. Such a program might provide an incentive for them to take part in their new world through companionship and a reason to get up and go someplace where they can contribute something useful.
Dr. Michael Gordon is medical program director of palliative care at Baycrest and co-author with Bart Mindszenthy of Parenting Your Parents (Dundurn Press).