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Reflections on The Elderly

September 2011

There’s been an emptiness in my life recently and I tried figuring out why. At first, I thought it was because my household recently emptied out dramatically. My daughter and son-in-law moved back to their own house after living with me for two weeks with their two-year-old and their brand new baby… my new grandson! On top of that, school started this week and my kids are out early in the morning, no longer under foot and creating their welcome, yet constant noise.

But then I realized it wasn’t that at all, and I figured out what it was: all last year I had a second job. In addition to working as a writer and project coordinator for CFOIC Heartland, I was a Recreation Counselor at our local Karnei Shomron Golden Agers Club. My friend was out on maternity leave and asked me to fill in for her for the year and it became an incredibly meangingful part of my year. And now, September 1st rolled around and she came back and I am no longer needed at the seniors’ club. But I find that I need them!

I always loved working with and hanging around senior citizens. My friends and my family don’t really understand it. Lots of people are bothered by the frailty of the elderly; their translucent, papery mottled skin, their bent over bodies, even their distinctive smell. But none of this has never bothered me. From day one, I walked into that Golden Agers Club and felt right at home. It was a place that strengthened for me what the Scriptures tell us; Long life is a reward. Even the Ten Commandments point out that those who honor their parents will be granted long life. Therefore, old should not be seen as an unwelcome end-stage, but rather a rewarding, yet challenging period of life.

The warmth of this age group is mind-boggling. I was there barely a week when I’d be greeted with spontaneous squeezes and heartfelt hugs. I was consistently and constantly told that I was wonderful and beautiful… and somehow, when I was with them, that is exactly how I felt! Maybe when you get to a certain age you say to yourself, “I’m not going to wait to tell someone I care… that she’s important to me. I’m not going to analyze everything I do and say.” Life is too short! My friends at the center were always happy to see me and each other, and they were very open about it.

If I had to pick one lesson that I learned from these seniors, it would be knowing how to be positive and grateful. My elderly friends came in every day, thanking G-d for being able to show up; thank Him for walking in on their own two feet. And those who came in with walkers and wheelchairs and canes were grateful for being able to continue coming in spite of that. They were grateful for their children and grandchildren who worried about them, visited them, and yes, even forced them to hire nursing aides when they stopped being able to function on their own. Every week we had Discussion Hour, and it didn’t matter if the topic was Current Events and Politics, the upcoming Jewish holidays, or an interesting essay I wanted to share with them. They always came around to their gratitude for what they DO have in live. Their friends and their social life at the Center, the ability to sit around at the communal breakfast and feed themselves and converse and laugh… even if their Philippine aide had to wheel them over to the table and bring them their tray of food and even if that same aide had to take them to the bathroom after the meal.

Sometimes, though, someone would get depressed. When Sara’s husband had to be put in a home, she’d burst into tears at every word of sympathy. Pearl would look down at her useless legs and bemoan the days when she was the best dancer and the fastest swimmer in her home town. But there was always someone there to set them straight — to point out the good, the positive, the need to remain upbeat and positive. Their gratitude and appreciation was for everything, great and small. Whether I remembered to bring Ellie a plastic cup of ice water after exercise class or led an especially rousing, lively sing-along hour, the thanks I received was enormous and genuine.

Judaism encourages… even demands… a respect for the elderly. In Leviticus, the Bible clearly states, “You shall stand up before the gray headed and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your G-d: I am the Lord” (19:32). The simple fact of aging merits honor from those around you. And I don’t think it is by chance that the second part of the verse reminds us to fear G-d. He wants us to remember the elderly and remember Him. I think our religion is so tradition-based, so concerned with maintaining our link with our past, that the people who represent that past, who are our bond with our precious history, become, themselves, precious too. And we want to honor them. When I see Frieda at our club, her back a permanent “C”, I don’t see a broken woman; I see a person who raised her children in conditions harder than those I need to deal with today. I see a mother and wife who miraculously held her family together, successfully keeping age-old traditions alive. When Bila rambles, turning every conversation into memories of sixty years ago, I don’t see the dementia; I see a woman who remembers life in the Polish villages when being Jewish was much simpler, before the ravages of the Holocaust changed her life forever.

“You shall stand up before the gray headed”. Israeli children probably wouldn’t be able to tell you that the verse is from Leviticus. They would tell you it’s from the stickers plastered on the first few rows of seats on public busses. Israeli children would never think of sitting on the seats designated for the elderly. And I’m proud to say that it’s automatic for kids to jump out of their seats and offer senior citizens their seats. I’ve seen little kids poking their friends if they don’t think of it on their own. Even at the many hitchhiking spots all over the country, there is respect for the elderly. Tired teenagers, dusty and sweaty from hours of hiking, or kids who missed their busses home from school… they all want to get home to a shower… to an air-conditioned house. But if an older person shows up at the hitchhiking spot, he will be placed in the next car that stops. And nobody who was waiting, sometimes even for hours, will think of demanding to be first. Maybe this happens so naturally because, from a very young age, respect for the elderly is ingrained in the upbringing and education of our children.

It’s hard to think of a Jewish ritual, whether public or private, that doesn’t somehow reinforce the love and respect for our elders. At the Shabbat table, when it is time to say the Grace After Meals, my son Avraham would feel truly uncomfortable leading the prayers, and would prefer to defer to an aged relative, Rabbi or teacher. When my daughter Avigayil was planning her son’s circumcision, she knew she wanted to give the honor of holding the baby during the ceremony, to her grandfather, and not even her father or a friend.It was very moving to see my elderly father-in-law holding my newborn grandson, entering him into the same covenant of Abraham which he himself had joined so many years ago.

At the end of the Feast of Tabernacles, when celebrating the holiday of The Rejoicing of the Torah, the Holy Ark is opened and the Torah Scrolls are taken out to dance with. The first Torah Scroll is automatically handed to an elderly congregant to lead the processional around the Ark. Later, when the more boisterous dancing begins, the Torah is handed over to a younger person, but the first honor is first given to the elderly member to show our esteem. It is incredibly appropriate to give the honor of celebrating the finishing and beginning again of the cyclical reading of the Torah, to someone who himself has managed to live a life true to this Torah, passing on traditions from previous generations.

In my generation, the elderly are often asociated with the generation that has endured the Holocaust. The aged symbolize survival, symbolize a time that must not be forgotten. And we look to these senior citizens with regard and with almost a desperation to keep their voices heard. At Israeli ceremonies on Holocaust Memorial Day, it is an all too common sight to see a young child leading her invalid grandparent to the front of the assembly hall to light one of the six torches memoralizing the 6 million Jews who were butchered during the Holocaust. Elderly people are a connection to our past, even if they bear witness to a horrendous time in our history.

The Hebrew word for old is “Zaken”. Interestingly, the same 3 letter root is used in the Scriptures, many times. In the Scriptures, though, it does not refer to old people. It means important people… people the community, the nation holds in great regard. When Moses is told to gather seventy wise, competent, respected people to serve as a Sanhedrin, he is told to choose from “Ziknei Yisrael”, the elders of Israel. The Sages say, “There is nobody who is called elderly who has not garnered knowledge.” The Jewish people think of their aged population as those who can serve as teachers, models for future generations.

I wish for my friends at the Center, my aging family and friends. long life… a life filled with meaning, respect and regard. May G-d guide their hands and hold them in His heart with compassion, granting them the strength to live out their lives, serving Him with pride and love.