My twelfth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Gazzola, asked my class: “Have you ever looked closely at the hands of the elderly? Have you ever stopped and noticed every line — every mark — every wrinkle?”
Think about the ocean of experience the elderly have to share. Think about the diverse array of individuals they have met — the lessons they have learned — the challenges they have faced — the historical events they have witnessed — the changes they have encountered — the journeys they have taken. Each of our elders carries a unique treasury of stories and wisdom. If only we would take the time to listen, to ask them questions, to hear their stories and learn from them as though they are our teachers.
Although we often neglect the elderly, Judaism teaches the mitzvah of v’hadarta p’nei zaken, caring for elders. Our tradition teaches us to value the knowledge and experience of the elderly.
Rabbi Akiva explains, “Israel is compared to a bird. Just as a bird cannot fly without wings, so too Israel cannot do anything without its Elders.” The spirit and guidance of the elderly have the power to transform our lives. When we listen to their struggles and their accomplishments, we gain perspective. We become more thoughtful, more compassionate individuals.
This year I served as a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Cedar Village Retirement Community. While I found it deeply rewarding to provide pastoral care to residents and to lead Kabbalat Shabbat sing-alongs, my most meaningful experience at Cedar Village was participating in OMA: Opening Minds through Art.
OMA, an intergenerational art program for people with dementia, was started in 2007 by Dr. Elizabeth Lokon. Founded on the fact that people with dementia are capable of expressing themselves creatively, OMA’s mission is to build bridges across age and cognitive barriers through art.
Every Friday at Cedar Village, residents with dementia are paired with trained volunteers who work with them on a one-to-one basis. Our OMA community creates a peaceful, positive atmosphere by starting each session singing “You are my Sunshine,” and closing with “This Little Light of Mine.”
Throughout the project, the resident is the artist, the director of the piece. The resident chooses the colors and makes every artistic decision. The resident takes the lead on as much of the project as he or she is capable of doing, while the volunteer guides the resident through the instructions. The resident gains confidence as a result of being treated as a leader, a person capable of making decisions and creating artwork.
Working one-on-one with my partner as he created exquisite artwork, I watched him transform into an artist — a person with direction, creativity, authority, and pride in his artistic choices. He spoke through his art, he told stories. While my partner did not speak much in the beginning of the program, I got to know him through his art.
My favorite part of this program was at the end of each session when the volunteers framed the artwork, held it up in front of the artist, and asked the artist how he or she feels about this new creation. My partner always seemed surprised at how beautiful his artwork looked in the end. He could not believe that he was an artist, but the proof was framed right in front of his eyes.
Another resident put herself down throughout the project; she would laugh at what a terrible artist she was. As her partner complimented her art, she would always say, “Come on, you’re putting me on!” Later when her partner framed her finished piece, she saw how beautiful it was; she had the biggest smile on her face when she realized that she was in fact an artist!
At the end of each OMA semester, we celebrated with a gallery exhibition illustrating the artists’ accomplishments and demonstrating the talent and creative capability of people with dementia. Families and community members came to the art show, and this special night was an opportunity for residents with dementia to become the stars of the show, to be applauded for their hard work.
We celebrated the deep bonds we formed, and the artists reflected upon the pieces they created throughout the semester. They took pride in the fact that their art was hanging up for the entire community to see. They felt valued, appreciated, seen as more than people with dementia but as artists, as unique souls capable of inspiring us with their art.
Serving as a fellow at Cedar Village Retirement Community has deepened my appreciation and love for the elderly. This experience has pushed me to look beyond the age or the limitations of the elderly and to see them for the light they bring to this world.
On Yom Kippur, when we pray humbly before God and pray Sh’ma Koleynu, we beg God: Al Tashlikheni l’eit zikna, meaning “Do not throw me away in my old age.” May each of us invite the elderly into our lives. As we hold their hands, may we be touched by their wisdom and insight, their ability to create, and their ever-glowing divine spark.
Jenn Maggin is a fourth-year Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow at Cedar Village Retirement Community. Her mentor is Cantor Lanie Katzew