Diana Barshaw
Rise and walk the land, it's length and breadth
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Age of consent

The gross underestimation of older people and their ability to determine their own fates was strong in Israel long before COVID-19
Illustrative. (iStock)
Illustrative. (iStock)

They are too old; it is for their own protection:

  1. She is the sole breadwinner in her family, but she is forbidden from going to work. It doesn’t matter that her teammates can now come into the office; she cannot come in. It doesn’t matter that her apartment is small and she’s working in her living room, and that her disabled husband and four children are also home using the same over burdened internet so it takes her much longer to get her work done. Nevertheless, she cannot come in. She is too old. It’s for her own protection. 
  2. He can’t invite his family to visit him. The volunteer organizations that he leads are shut down, leaving him with nothing to do and lonely. It doesn’t matter that he struggles with depression. It makes no difference that he’s a runner and in better physical shape than most 20-year-olds. He can’t have his family visit. He is too old. It is for his own protection.
  3. She is forbidden from going to the mental health daycare center, although operations have resumed and her friends are there. It doesn’t matter that she needs it to maintain her equilibrium, to prevent mania, psychosis, and violence. She has schizophrenia and the daycare center is her routine and foundation, but she can’t come in. She is too old. It is for her own protection.
  4. She is not allowed to help her children who are trying to work while their little ones are at home because it is forbidden for her to visit her grandchildren. It doesn’t matter that her grandchildren are her heart’s delight and that they beg to see her and feel abandoned. She’s forbidden from hugging them and comforting them even though she’s in perfect health. She is too old. It is for her own protection.

Such has been the situation here in Israel these last few months of the coronavirus. My reaction: defiance and rage. My defiance has worked in my personal life. In spite of the total lockdown, my children and their spouses were here for Passover, and we celebrated the seder together. We discussed the risks together in the week before and made a joint informed decision. It felt like a military operation to make it work, but we succeeded. I know of others who quietly defied the blatant bias against older people and treated the older members of their family as competent adults.  

However, some of my friends and loved ones have not fared so well. Each of the paragraphs above describes a real situation (changes were added to protect the identity of the individuals). The first example is ongoing, it is unjust and verges on cruelty, but the people who prevent her from going to the office smugly believe they are doing a good thing — they are protecting her from Corona. Really?! She is not allowed to decide for herself what is in her best interest. 

Shame on the Ministry of Health and the rest of the government that did not assemble a team to think these regulations through. Shame on the people who could defy them, who could think for themselves and act logically, but instead passively comply and do wrong. 

The gross underestimation of the ability of older people to determine their own fate did not appear here in Israel suddenly with the virus crisis. For the 30 years we have lived here, I’ve seen how Israelis value youth over experience, and it’s not all bad. When my oldest son started his senior year of high school, we had a parents-teachers meeting. One of the main topics was the transition from parents caring for and protecting their children to the children joining the army and becoming the protectors. For me, as a new Israeli, that was a seminal moment. I do not take for granted that our children on the front lines allow us our joyous lifestyle. Israelis are completely dependent on those amazing young people.

And from there it goes to the “Startup Nation”: innovation, improvisation, fail and try again, don’t accept “no” as an answer; and many other qualities of youth, all of them wonderful, that make Israel what it is. But along with our deep respect for the qualities of youth, we have not given enough respect to the value of the experience which only comes with age.  Over the years, we have paid a price for that failure. I have seen indications that the imbalance was changing and experience was coming into its own. But now this terrible setback: old people need to be protected, they can’t think it out for themselves, they aren’t allowed to make decisions, and take their own risks. 

How it should have been — and a better path for the next wave, if there is one: 

  1. When offices open again after a lockdown, provide full information to each worker about the situation as it is known at the time. Include the Ministry of Health’s assessment of people at greater risk and then allow those workers who have a greater risk from Corona to work from home if they want to stay home.   
  2. Mental health should be given the same consideration as physical health. The places that help such patients should be considered essential, and not close during lockdowns. The counselors need to be given support, tests should be administered, and, if appropriate, the patients could come in shifts for social distancing. Most certainly, the most vulnerable of all, the elderly mentally ill, should not be discriminated against.
  3. Citizens should all be provided with ongoing updates informing the public of which populations are most vulnerable. Advice should be given about how these vulnerable people can best safeguard themselves.   
  4. Acknowledge that adults have the right to make their own decisions and take their own informed risks. Just as 40-year-olds who have diabetes can make their own decisions whether to isolate, so can 80-year-olds make their own decisions about whom to visit, who can come to their houses, and whom they can hug.

Since we came to Israel, I have felt that I was meant to be an Israeli. While many other olim (immigrants) from the Anglo world complain about Israeli pushiness, nosiness, honesty to the point of rudeness, I see proper assertiveness, care for the people around them, and a refreshing directness that has become like the air I breathe. Other important aspects of life that I value highly seemed to follow after me. We came to Israel with our dog and were considered odd — few people had dogs in Israel in those days. Now, there are pet stores everywhere, dog training has become an Israeli talent, and Tel Aviv is purported to have the most dogs per capita of any city. When we first came here, the food was good, but basic. Now there are multiple cafes and restaurants on every block and the food scene has exploded. I was in harmony with this society.

In the face of this virus, I suddenly feel disenfranchised and out of step. Can it be true that Israelis feel comfortable with these regulations put in place towards older people? Please let me know if you agree with my rage and defiance. Let me know if you think the government has the right to take away my right to choose my own path, while purportedly “protecting me.”

Additional notes:

  1. This essay is not an argument against closures, social distancing and lockdowns “to flatten the curve” as they say. It will take time, maybe years, before we can know if such strategies were effective. The decisions made to isolate old people were not to protect society; they were justified to protect us old folk, but what they really did harmed us and harmed society. 
  2. A friend told me that he “needed” the government rules because, without those rules, he would feel uncomfortable asking his grandchildren not to visit. He was asking the government to impose restrictions on everyone so he personally would not need to be assertive about his own needs. If you feel threatened, isolate yourself, bur don’t expect a general rule to help you with your particular situation. However, to accommodate people like my friend, there could be advisories explaining that certain populations should isolate — my friend could use that as support.
  3. Disclaimer: My arguments don’t address nursing homes and assisted living facilities of which I have no experience.

This essay is in honor of my mother Rhoda Ben-Isaac, of blessed memory, on her sixth yahrzeit.

About the Author
Diana Barshaw was a research scientist and professor in the field of behavior and ecology from 1988 to 2004. Starting in 2005 she spent two years writing a novel while working for Berlitz and the Berlitz Virtual Classroom as an English teacher and as the supervisor and trainer of English teachers. She also wrote a monthly column for the Jerusalem Post called ‘Wild Israel’. Currently Diana explores the wild parts of Israel and guides hikers. She has her own website (www.DianaBarshaw.com) where she describes the Israel National Trail, writes articles about Israeli wildlife, and where she is compiling a guide to hiking the trails of the Carmel Mountains.
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