Protecting and Advocating for Israeli Elders
A collection of Israeli attorneys and social welfare advocates came together in 2015 to found MARVA, an organization dedicated to protecting and advocating for Israeli elders struggling to live well and protect themselves. MARVA’s name is both the translation of a healing plant, salvia, but is also a Hebrew acronym for the group’s areas of concern – law welfare and empowerment. MARVA is devoted to helping older Israelis with physical or cognitive disabilities, people with mental health challenges and those victimized by physical, emotional or financial abuse. MARVA both provides legal aid and arranges for social welfare and therapeutic support. The Sephardic Foundation on Aging (SFOA) has supported MARVA with two grants of $30,000 each, one in February 2022 and another in February 2023.
Working to Prevent Abuse
MARVA’s signature effort is its Elder Abuse Prevention Program, which helps 1,250 older adults a year throughout Israel and their family members address instances of abuse and neglect. In addition to providing legal protection for abused older people, the program also works in many cases to help the abusers. MARVA recognizes that adult children of vulnerable older people sometimes resort to abuse while struggling with their own addiction or mental health issues, so its team of social welfare experts work to get these people help as well.
In addition, MARVA makes community education a priority. It provides an ongoing series of lectures on a range of legal and welfare-related topics to seniors, families, and the professional communities of lawyers, social workers, municipal workers, and others in the field. “We work closely with municipal welfare offices,” said Dr. Mickey Schindler, MARVA’s director and one of its co-founders. The organization’s small staff works with hundreds of social workers across the country, he said.
MARVA’s legal work can take many forms, including court orders to keep an abuser away from a senior’s home or to compel a senior’s abusive relative to accept therapeutic care when needed. MARVA also makes guardianship arrangements to protect some seniors from neglecting themselves. The organization also brings legal actions against those who try to exploit older people.
Providing Legal Aid
MARVA lawyers directly represent seniors who are victimized by abuse or neglect. Attorneys draft documents, provide legal advice and consultation, and advocate in court. MARVA operates walk-in legal aid centers in Hod Hasharon, Jerusalem, Safed and at dozens of municipal welfare offices throughout Israel.
Lawyers from MARVA often work as part of a multidisciplinary team with social welfare and medical experts. In 2022, thanks in part to the first of SFOA’s grants, MARVA helped about 500 Israeli seniors.
Raising Awareness of the Issues Seniors Face
Staff and volunteers from MARVA provide online and in-person lectures to seniors, their family members, and professional groups on how to recognize signs of abuse and neglect, the legal rights elderly people have, how to prevent financial exploitation, legal strategies for seniors to get abusers out of their homes and how to help elderly people address self-neglect without compromising their independence and autonomy. SFOA’s support in 2022 helped MARVA reach 1,555 people through workshops, seminars, conferences and lectures.
Challenges remain, including MARVA’S work in ultra orthodox and Israeli Arab communities, Dr. Schindler said. In closed communities, it is more difficult to gain trust, he said, but MARVA strives to be effective for elderly people in all parts of Israeli society.
Stories of People MARVA has helped
In all these examples, names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.
Sarah, an Ethiopian immigrant to Israel now in her 60s, is a widow who has suffered physical, emotional and financial abuse by one of her sons, Daniel. He has mental health and drug addiction issues, which are behind his abuse of his mother and some of his siblings. After one particularly violent episode, authorities confined Daniel first in a mental institution and then in jail, but he was released after a few months. He returned to his mother’s home and the abuse resumed. A MARVA attorney consulted with a municipal multi-disciplinary committee, and they decided to apply to the family court for a protection order that required Daniel to get the treatment he needed, in the hopes of ending this cycle of abuse. Sarah said she is at high risk of being harmed by her son, and Daniel similarly risks death if he continues to use drugs. MARVA’s goal was to help Sarah and the rest of her family by helping Daniel get control of his life.
Rachel and Moses are in their 80s, suffering physical abuse by their adult son Jonathan. He, like Daniel, struggles both with mental illness and addiction. Moses has diabetes and other physical ailments, and is confined to a wheelchair. Despite the abuse and financial exploitation, Rachel and Moses were hesitant to take action against their son out of concern for his future, a common dynamic in such cases. But after an especially bad attack, Jonathan was put into a mental institution. While he was confined, a social worker working with a MARVA attorney asked the court to remove Jonathan from the family home because of his father’s medical condition. Jonathan agreed to continue receiving treatment in a mental health ward. He hopes to improve, and his parents now live safely in their home.
Joseph has been living alone since the death of his mother, a Holocaust survivor. He has memory problems and confusion, and other mental difficulties. With the death of his mother, he lost his rights in the apartment they shared, and his cognitive issues put him at significant risk after the eviction. Instead of appointing a guardian to look after his affairs, MARVA appointed him a “supporter of decision-making,” which allowed Joseph to live independently with autonomy, but with volunteer legal help to help him find housing and deal with other issues as needed.
Looking to the Future
With help from SFOA, Dr. Schindler said MARVA is expanding its work to do more to protect elderly people from financial exploitation. Until recently, MARVA has focused on abuse committed by family members, typically adult children and spouses. But now MARVA is seeing a rise in computer and phone scams that target the elderly, particularly Holocaust survivors. Older people are vulnerable to trickery and aggressive sales pitches. “We decided this year that we should also focus on that issue,” Dr. Schindler said.
Meanwhile, MARVA also plans to do more on preventing self-neglect, with lectures and carefully crafted interventions designed to respect older people’s autonomy while providing support and protection.
“Every elderly person who is suffering from abuse, it’s tragic,” Dr. Schindler said, expressing gratitude for SFOA’s support. As a result, he said MARVA can continue its work at a high level and even open several new branches. These branches allow MARVA to reach hundreds more people a year.
Citing the Talmud, he added: “Whoever saves one soul, it is as if he saved the whole world.”