Senior Citizens in Israel.

AuthorWeihl, Hannah
PositionDemographics - Statistical Data Included

In 1995, there were 528,600 elderly persons in Israel. (1) Although they account for less than 10 percent of the population, (2) the elderly utilize a large proportion of the social services: in 1987, 40 percent of income maintenance payments and 29 percent of health expenses. (3)

The 65+ Age Group

Eleven percent of Jews and 3 percent of Arabs are aged 65+. (4)


According to a population forecast, (5) the proportion of persons aged 65+ will hardly increase in the next ten years, but the share of those aged 75+ among the elderly will rise, foremost among women.

Israel's elderly population will grow unevenly-by 56 percent among Arabs and by 12 percent among Jews.

Life Expectancy

Life expectancy of Jewish and Arab men at age 65 (6) is almost equal--16.0 and 15.8 years, respectively. Life expectancy is greater among women than men (as it is worldwide) and greater among Jewish women than Arab women-17.9 years and 16.4 years, respectively.

Ratio of Women to Men

In 1995, women outnumbered men among the elderly by a ratio of 57:43. (7)

Ethnic Origin

Almost three-fourths of Jewish elderly in 1995 were of European or American origin. (8)

Marital Status

The marital status of elderly men and women is very different: (9) a majority of men, including those over the age of 80, are married, while most of the women are widows. The proportion of widows rises from 44 percent in the 65-74 age group to 82 percent in the 80+ cohort. Two percent of Jewish elderly were never married. In the Arab population, the proportion of elderly women who were never married is higher. (10)

Children and Grandchildren

Most of the elderly have children and grandchildren; a few have great grandchildren. (11) The proportion of elderly without children is 11.3 percent. Among the Jewish elderly, 2.8 percent have no children in Israel, i.e., no children who can help them in daily life. (12)

Average Household Size

The average household size is 1.65 persons among Jewish elderly and 2.37 among Arab elderly. (13) Most seniors in both population groups (94 percent of Jews, 71 percent of Arabs) live in households of up to two persons--usually with a spouse and less commonly with a son or daughter. Among the Arab population, the proportion of elderly who live with minor children is about 20 percent. (14) The share of seniors who live with adult married children appears to be similar among Jews and Arabs.

Mizrahi Jewish elderly are more likely than Ashkenazi elderly to live with children, partly because of differences in marriage patterns, fertility patterns, and income. (15)

Most widows do not live with children, and widows account for 77 percent of all elderly who live alone.


In Israel, as worldwide, the elderly have less schooling than their children. Compulsory education--insofar as it existed in countries where Israel's current elderly were born--covered fewer years in the seniors' generation than in the children's generation, and in some countries it was not the custom for girls to attend school. Jewish boys, in contrast, generally acquired some schooling.

Non-Jewish elderly have much less schooling than Jewish seniors and 62 percent of them (more women than men) are illiterate. (16) This can be attributed to the absence of compulsory education during the British Mandate period.

Differences on Five Dimensions

There are five major differences among the elderly population.


A distinction should be made between the "young old," who have not yet reached the age of 75, and "old-old," those aged 75+. Since the proportion of elderly who suffer from disability and illness rises with age, so does the share of those in need of medical services, medicines, assistance in functioning, and appropriate transportation. For this reason, the elderly need to spend much more on health than the young, but in most cases their income does not rise commensurably.

As the health of members of these age groups deteriorates, their living patterns change. They spend less time away from home and have to find activities to fill growing hours of leisure.

Obviously, then, the growth forecast for the senior population generally and the "old-old" particularly cannot but affect the planning of welfare and health services.

Availability of Children

The gerontology literature shows that family members (spouses, children and their spouses, and grandchildren) are the ones who meet most of the needs of the disabled elderly, even in countries with the most highly developed welfare services. Thus, those who lack this resource are worse off than those whose children are available. If these seniors also lack the wherewithal to purchase services, their situation is much more difficult.

Israel's legally mandated services make no provisions for the special needs of the childless elderly. Lack of children (17) is not a formal criterion in eligibility for services, and there are no regulations that require affirmative action to provide for their special needs. (18)

Cultural Heterogeneity

The conventional taxonomy distinguishes among three population groups--Arabs, Mizrahi Jews, and Ashkenazi Jews (19)--who have different levels of income and education, different family values, and different household structures, especially among the elderly.

The distinction between elderly Arabs and Jews is important because, in addition to the difference in cultural background, a political factor is present. Amb wage-earners still find it hard to obtain "good" jobs that provide tenure, pension rights, and an adequate wage, and some of today's seniors spent much of their working lives unemployed. Most Arab elderly held unskilled jobs that did not provide social benefits.

Length of Stay

Ashkenazi elderly are different from Mizrabi elderly in terms of their tenure in Israel--a difference that does much to dictate their current level of income. Tenure also reflects the degree of one's social and cultural immersion and, in this sense, affects the sense of belonging to Israeli society.


Education makes it possible to obtain economically and socially rewarding work and provides the tools needed to fill leisure time and cope with changes in physical functioning. Consequently, it stands to reason that highly educated pensioners will out-earn their poorly educated counterparts. This factor also affects lifestyle, since seniors with little schooling and low income must contend with more significant changes in their way of life after retirement.

The data presented here enable us to pinpoint the most vulnerable groups in the elderly population of Israel (and worldwide)--those who are "old-old," are poorly educated, have low income, (20) have no children who can help them, and those who live alone (generally widows).


Employment and income are interrelated even after retirement, as the level of one's pension is a function of income during working years. People who earned little and saved nothing while working will have a scanty income in old age, and unless their employers offered pension plans, they will depend on the National Insurance (Social Security) old-age pension.

Because Israeli law does not require citizens to contribute to a pension fund, it is the responsibility of working persons to assure themselves an income for old age. Too many workers do not or cannot tend to this necessity; 45 percent of men who were self-employed (as against 27 percent of former wage-earners) receive income maintenance supplements (21) because they have no savings. Some placed themselves in this situation by exhausting their pension savings before they reached retirement age.

In many workplaces, agreements between employers and labor organizations stipulate pension fund contributions by both sides or pension payments from the national budget. Such agreements, however, are common only in large workplaces (government, municipal authorities, former Histadrut enterprises, the Jewish Agency, and some large industrial firms). In many other sectors (agriculture, sales, domestics, miscellaneous services, and much of industry), there are no such collective agreements; working conditions are set forth by the employer, sometimes by means of time-limited personal contracts that do not include arrangements for retirement.

Some of the elderly--17.7 percent of men and 5.5 percent of women over age 65--participate in the labor force. (22) This participation depends on the state of the labor market and various factors associated with the elderly themselves: the desire to continue working, the willingness to change occupations, the extent of need for a larger income, education level, and age upon arrival in Israel. The job status of the elderly also affects their employment rate: 37 percent of elderly (65+) participants in the labor force in 1985 were self-employed. (23)

Level of Household Income

Twenty-one percent of urban households in 1992/93 were headed by people aged 65+. (24) In the low-income deciles, the proportion of urban households headed by people aged 65+ was slightly higher than that of households headed by younger people. In the upper income deciles, their share was lower.

The income of households headed by elderly is distributed more or less equally across the deciles of total net income per standard adult (Table 1).

Persons aged 65+ have a higher net income per standard adult than members of other age groups, because their households have fewer persons, on average, than households headed by younger people. (25)

This does not mean that there are no poor elderly. According to the annual report of the National Insurance Institute, (26) 19.9 percent of elderly households had disposable income under the poverty line in 1996 (as against 16 percent of households in the population at large). A large share (39 percent) of National Insurance transfer payments went to these households. (27)

Elderly women have lower income than elderly men. Fewer women continue to work after...

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