Bumper stickers and T-shirts declare that “old age is not for sissies.” Whether or not that statement is true, few people look forward to growing old since American society tends to favor the young.
The percentage of the population living to an advanced age is increasing, though, as is the number of frail elderly. Fortunately, Judaism offers a way to add meaning to those years, since there is no retirement from performing mitzvahs.
It can be difficult, however, for those with illness and physical disabilities to participate in communal and family events. To help caregivers, family members and professionals create better ways for the elderly to continue active participation in the synagogue and the community, Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman has written the excellent “Jewish Visions for Aging: A Professional Guide for Fostering Wholeness.”
In it, she shows how Judaism can play an important role in helping people not only to cope with aging, but to discover ways to increase their spiritual well-being during their later years.
According to Friedman, the founding director of Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism at the Reconstruct-ionist Rabbinical College, her work “is a tool for those who seek to enable elders’ lights to shine.”
The first section, “Text and Tradition,” looks at classical Jewish texts on aging, particularly focusing on a verse in Leviticus that commands us to show hiddur, deference for the aged, and explains what that means in practical terms.
The second section explores ways that the elderly can find new meaning in later life, in addition to showing how others can benefit from the wisdom these elders offer.
In the third section, Friedman discusses the challenges faced by caregivers who may not only be juggling the demands of their parents, but those of their aging spouses, children and grandchildren.
This is followed by a look at how to increase the spiritual care received by the elderly who remain in their own homes and to those who live in long-term care institutions.
The last section focuses on intergenerational programming, which “offers a vision and practical guidance for transforming congregations into multigenerational communities.”
What makes “Jewish Visions for Aging” succeed is its combination of practical advice and case studies, which make it easier to see how to put Friedman’s suggestions into action. For example, her listing of “practical tips for accompanying people with dementia” should be posted at every care facility.
She writes of four “general approaches” for dealing with someone with de-mentia (including how important silent moments can be) and eight potential ways to reach a person with dementia. She also gives suggestions for how caregivers can care for themselves. In addition, she offers ways to make visits to nursing homes more meaningful for the residents and their visitors.
Other sections give suggestions on how rituals for acknowledging the changes people are going through (giving up their drivers’ licenses, moving to an apartment from the family home, retiring, etc.) can help ease people through difficult times. Her suggestions for intergenerational programming not only focus on the event itself, but on how to prepare the young, the middle-aged and the elderly in order to make the program more meaningful.
For those who best relate through personal examples, Fried-man includes case studies that offer insight into the reality the elderly and their caregivers face. My favorite example shows how creative opportunities can still occur in one’s elder years: It tells of two nursing home residents, a retired professor of Jewish studies and a businessman, who first shared a room and later an intellectual companionship as they used their time together to study Jewish history, something they would not have had the opportunity to do during any other period of their adult lives.
Not all studies are as easy to read, though. The difficulties caregivers face can be heartbreaking, something the author acknowledges, explaining “the caregiving task itself is impossible, as frail elders typically do not get better, but instead, become more frail over time. In this way, there is no ‘success’ in caregiving.”
The role reversal that takes place when a child needs to care for a parent can raise complex emotions. Rabbis and other spiritual leaders can help caregivers deal with these feelings by using Friedman’s “10 Jewish tools for responding to caregivers’ spiritual needs,” which include sacred listening, life review, ritual, prayer, study and meditation.
Having been an intern at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center when Friedman was its spiritual leader, I can testify from personal experience that her programming was successful and that her advice works.
What I learned from her also helped me in my personal life. “Jewish Visions for Aging” belongs on every rabbi’s and synagogue’s bookshelf. It would also make an excellent text for a workshop for caregivers and professionals who work with the elderly in any capacity. n
Rabbi Rachel Esserman is a copy editor at The Reporter in Vestal, N.Y., where this review first appeared. She is also the Jewish chaplain for the Broome County, N.Y., Developmental Disabilities Service Office.
“Jewish Visions for Aging: A Professional Guide for Fostering Wholeness” by Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman (236 pages, Jewish Lights Publishing, $24.99).