Retreating to shelters tough for elderly, intellectually disabled

AKIM helps to temporarily evacuate people from the south of Israel.

As the conflict with Gaza rages, Israelis typically have, depending on where they live, between 15 seconds and several minutes to safely get to a bomb shelter after the siren goes off – an experience that, for the average citizen, is sufficiently stressful. 

But for an Israeli child or adult with an intellectual disability, or for an elderly person and his or her family, retreating to safety in time can be simply debilitating. 

“A ‘normal’ person can run. Our children, our people, are disabled. They [often] cannot run,” said Daniel Bar-Am, international director of AKIM, Israel’s national non-profit agency for people with intellectual disabilities.  

“People with intellectual disabilities may not know what’s going on… when you try to take them to a shelter, they get very nervous… [especially] if you do this several times a day. They can fall and hurt themselves,” he said. There are around 34,000 intellectually disabled people living in Israel.

Active since 1951, AKIM provides services to people with intellectual disabilities and their families in 64 communities (including some Arab villages) across Israel, operating preschool programs, social clubs, group home facilities and residential supports. It also works to influence policy so people with intellectual disabilities are protected and assisted financially.

AKIM’s current focus is to help evacuate families in its network who live in areas considered most vulnerable to rocket attacks, such as cities in Israel’s south. 

“Even someone [with a disability] who might be able to stay home for a little while normally, their parents now feel really tied to the house to make sure they are there to protect their son or daughter,” he said.

“Especially if an intellectual disability is compounded by a physical one… you can imagine what it might be like for a mother in her 60s or 70s to carry someone who’s 40 years old downstairs in the time needed to get to a shelter.” 

As of July 15, AKIM had temporarily evacuated 40 families with an intellectually disabled member from southern cities such as Ashdod, Ashkelon, Be’er Sheva and Netivot, bringing them to accommodations in quieter places in Israel’s north.

Around 50 families were on a wait-list for evacuation.

Due to limited resources, however, AKIM can’t afford to evacuate a family for more than about four days – a duration that, with transportation and hotel fees, costs close to $2,000 (US) per family. 

The organization has asked supporters in Canada, the United States, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and some Jewish communities in South America to consider providing financial assistance to help bring more families to safer locations, if only for a few days.

“We want to send families to breathe fresh air and rest a bit,” Bar-Am said.

It’s also difficult for seniors. Shlomit Ben-Noon, co-ordinator of the senior homes management program at Ariel University, said it’s critical not just to have a plan to move the elderly into safe areas, but to consider their emotional needs as well.

“Older people have been through an awful lot in their lives,” said Ben-Noon, who manages Beit Shalom in Tel Aviv, one of three senior residences run by the Reuth eldercare, rehabilitation and social-welfare agency. Beit Shalom has 90 residents. “The staff has to be sensitive to their needs and anxieties, especially because many of them are Holocaust survivors, war veterans and others who have experienced personal tragedies,” she said.

Beit Shalom’s social worker and “house mothers” spend more time one on one with residents to monitor for distress signals such as changes in eating or sleeping habits. Additional seating has been placed in common areas and more independent residents are urged to gather with other residents and staff members for a greater feeling of personal safety. If an alert is sounded, this also allows for smoother transfer to safe rooms.

But many of those in Beit Shalom’s nursing-care wing can’t be moved. “Where necessary, the staff takes turns staying with them in place,” Ben-Noon said. “We have added additional staff where necessary to cover everyone.”