How old is the oldest person you know? A bizarre question, I will grant that, but I mean it in earnest.
We live in a rapidly aging society in which people over the age of 65 constitute the fastest growing demographic. Looking even closer at this cohort, the balance is tipped toward those over 85, as Rabbi Richard Address suggested in his recent article in the Winter 2016 issue of the CCAR Journal, “Growing Older, Growing Better: The Impact of the Longevity Revolution.” With the almost miraculous advancements in medical technology and techniques, it is becoming routine to be acquainted with a nonagenarian. And who knows what discoveries are waiting just beyond the horizon? We may just be on the cusp of living to the same age as Moses.
Longer life presents several challenges. Chief among them is the limitation of our own specialized skills to care for older adults. I can only speak for myself, but after a decade of higher education I would not know the first thing about providing first-rate medical care to an aging family member. But this is what is asked of us as Jews. In Exodus 20:12, we are commanded, כבד את אביך ואת אמך, “honor your father and your mother.”
We might like to know: What does it really mean to honor? Tractate Kiddushin 31b of the Babylonian Talmud answers our question. “‘Honor’ means that a child must give [their parents] food and drink, clothe and cover [them], and lead [them] in and out [when they are old and need a helping hand].” In the biblical context, it seems that honor extends only to looking after the physical needs of one’s aging parents — a task that is increasingly difficult the longer we live.
Luckily we have developed a variety of solutions — facilities equipped to see to a wide range of medical needs from rehabilitation after an injury; assisted living apartments; and memory, nursing, and palliative care — that do a commendable job of an unceasing task. Yet, even the best of these facilities has room to improve. I have had the privilege of serving at Cedar Village the past few months. In my limited experience, I have had the joy of assisting residents as they express themselves through art, celebrate holidays, have meaningful conversations; I have even had the chance to teach and learn from several residents.
One interaction immediately comes to mind. I had the opportunity to listen to music with one resident who no longer has the ability to speak; even if she could speak, I do not think we share a language. After gently placing the headphones over her ears, I hit play on the iPod. A soft and slow folk tune played, and I watched her eyes close while the corners of her mouth curled into the faintest beginnings of a smile. Over the course of the next twenty minutes, we listened to lullabies that brought contentment as well as upbeat songs that inspired what another staff member called “dancing.” It was a precious and sacred moment, and I felt blessed to share it. I cannot help but feel a small tinge of sadness when I realize that there are hundreds more people with whom I could visit. There would not be enough time to visit them all even if I were a full time employee — all the more so given my role as a very part-time intern.
I have learned a number of things thus far in my internship, but the real limit of time is an important lesson for me to carry. Our ancient sages of the Mishnah remind us of this as well. In Mishnah Avot 2:15, Rabbi Tarfon taught, “The day is short, the work is much…” The verse continues to teach, saying, “the reward is great.” It really is.
Whether it is listening to music or a brief conversation about the music they once performed, studying Jewish texts and practices of meditation, or listening to the wisdom a person has gained over the decades of their life, these moments are a reward in and of themselves. It is humbling to be a part of a few, and it is my hope that each of us can continue to honor our relatives by hearing their stories and sharing their lives. And may we have many opportunities to pass along what we learn from them to those who come after us.
Brian Nelson is the Rabbinic Intern/Fellow at Cedar Village Retirement Community.