The Graying of Israel - Coping with an Increasingly Elderly Population

By Meyers, Nechemia | The World and I, June 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Graying of Israel - Coping with an Increasingly Elderly Population


Meyers, Nechemia, The World and I


Victor Pessin admits to some resentment. Before he came to Israel in 1990, from what was then Leningrad, he was both a government research institute engineer and an after-hours sports writer. Now he is a security guard at a Tel Aviv school. Unfortunately, although Pessin is a vigorous 61-year-old, he is "too old" to get a job that uses his professional skills in Israel. In fact, he is lucky to have a job at all.

His situation is typical. One-fifth of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union over the last decade have been over 60 when they touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport. "We were consigned to the trash basket," Pessin grumbles with more than a touch of bitterness. Yet, however understandable his attitude may be, he quickly admits that he and all these elderly immigrants are better off than they would have been had they remained in Russia. There most people his age are not only jobless but may even be starving. In Israel, a social security net protects older immigrants as it does all older Israelis.

Indeed, the number of senior citizens is steadily going up in Israel, as it is in other Western countries. Since 1955 the elderly--namely those over 65--have increased sevenfold and the general population has increased slightly more than threefold. Likewise the proportion of aged Israelis has risen from 4 percent of the country's inhabitants in the 1950s to 10 percent today. For Jews, the number is 12 percent (as compared to 3 percent for Arabs).

Even more startling is the increase in number of the "old-old," people who are at least 75. Israel is home to some 250,000 such men and women, ten times as many as in the 1950s. A nation once defined by the youthful presence and pioneer vigor of the kibbutznik is becoming increasingly aware of the concerns of the elderly.

Aches and aging in the workplace

Many of the "old-old" suffer from infirmities and are restricted in their lifestyles, but 86-year-old Shneior Lifson, a professor at the Weizmann Institute, still rides a bicycle. In fact, he rides it to work. Lifson antedates the State of Israel. Indeed, he first saw the light of day before the British Mandate. He was born in Tel Aviv when what is now Israel was still part of the Ottoman Empire. After graduating from high school he left Tel Aviv for the Valley of Jezre'el, where he spent eleven years as a kibbutznik. Only afterward did he embark on his scientific studies. These brought him first to the Hebrew University and then to Rehovot's Weizmann Institute.

His long career, which included a stint as the institute's scientific director, "should have ended" some twenty years ago, he admits. But Lifson "forgot" to stop his studies of biological molecules. When he did finally change directions, he turned his attention to evolution and more specifically to the question of how life began, about which he has recently written several fascinating articles.

Asked whether it was still possible to do serious scientific research at his age, Lifson replied: "I can't give you a scientific answer to that question. But I can say with certainty that there are some scientists who stopped doing original research long before they retired and others who went on being creative long after retirement age.

"Here at the Weizmann Institute," he continued, "retirement officially begins at 65, after which a professor can no longer hold administrative positions. But from then until the age of 80, he can, if he so desires, ask for permission, year by year, to go on working--if he can find outside funds to finance his research. In rare cases, like my own, a department head may allow somebody in his unit to continue even after 80."

When Lifson looks around the institute campus, he sees himself as part of a flourishing institution. This would not be the case had he remained a kibbutznik. A significant percentage of Israel's collective settlements are in decline. More than 50 percent of kibbutz-born children have left their settlements.

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