Intel Israel engineers alleviate elderly loneliness during the Coronavirus pandemic

The approaching of the “Seder”, the festive Passover dinner celebrated by Jews in Israel and across the globe, attracted heightened attention to the loneliness felt by older people this year due to the prohibition on family gatherings for fear of COVID-19 transmission. Numerous older people were going to celebrate the holiday on their own, dining alone, and missing the joy of seeing their grandchildren. Passover is a major holiday in  Judaism as well as an Israeli legacy. It involves large family dinners, in which the participants recount the exodus of the People of Israel from Egypt, drink four glasses of wine, and eat Matzo, “Maror,” “Haroset,” and other traditional dishes. A common adage in Israel says no one is left alone on Passover.

With the COVID-19 pandemic preventing face-to-face interactions, many have switched to video conferencing calls with Zoom, Skype, and other apps and are planning to use the same for the Seder dinner. However, the situation is more challenging for older people who are not versed in chat and conferencing apps. In an attempt to help older people celebrate too, the Israel’s Ministry of Welfare set out to find a technological solution that would help the elderly loneliness and join the family Passover dinner. Intel’s Israel Public Affairs group and Intel’s Israel Innovation group joint forces supported by dozens of Intel Israel volunteers and responded with a newly-developed product, that connects older people to their family at the push of a button. 

The new solution, which Intel dubbed “Mechubarim” (Hebrew for “connected”), may be described as a “smart intercom.” It only needs to be plugged into the power outlet. When the family calls on Skype, Zoom, or WhatsApp, the older person needs only to push the button to establish video connectivity. No downloading of apps and no setting configuration are necessary; just press the button.

Five hundred older people known to the Welfare Ministry as living on their own will receive the smart system in the first stage. Volunteers and the Ministry social workers will deliver the systems in person. In addition to alleviating loneliness on Passover, the system will allow the Ministry to keep in touch with the elderly throughout the year, providing them with live online social activities (not recorded content) in real-time, during the COVID-19 crisis and afterward.

I’ve talked with Viki Almog-Eisenberg, Intel Israel’s innovation community, who led the system development at Intel. She described the project: “Dozens of engineers from Intel Israel volunteered to work on this project day and night. The project involved software and hardware development, as well as working with external vendors and logistics. Due to the restrictions, we could not meet in person, and equipment shipments failed to arrive on time due to the pandemic. We could not even access the Intel site to test the product. Volunteers did the entire work at home. It may sound unbelievable, but the system was ready within two weeks since Israel’s Welfare Ministry approached Intel. Needless to say, all the volunteers continued with their regular jobs too, working from home with their kids around them. Knowing that our volunteers help the elderly celebrate Passover with their loved ones is very gratifying,” concluded Almog-Eisenberg.

“We are facing challenging times,” said Bella Abrahams Director, Intel Israel Public Affairs Group “However, the challenge comes with an opportunity to solidify our social cohesion. Intel Corporation has pitched into the relief and donation efforts across the globe. In Israel, we stand by our communities, with an emphasis on education, healthcare, and welfare, areas in which our impact is especially meaningful. In addition to this amazing elderly people project, Intel Israel donated NIS 1 million to the RAMBAM Medical Center to allow the hospital to analyze hundreds of Coronavirus tests per day. We also used the drive-in testing stations set up by the Health Ministry and Red Magen David to hand out hundreds of “Family Quality Time” game kits to citizens who came to be tested. One hundred and fifty upgraded PCs were donated to children from underprivileged families to allow them to join their peers in remote learning. Last but not least, we donated 1,000 food baskets to needy families in our communities to help them celebrate Passover”.

I am deeply moved and inspired being part of this spontaneous display of empathy, care, and solidarity. May we soon resume our normal life! Keep healthy and safe!