The wisdom acquired in twenty-five years of caring for the elderly as a chaplain in a large Jewish geriatric residence is everywhere apparent in Rabbi Dayle Friedman’s book. It is appropriate for lay and professional audiences, and will be useful to anyone who is dealing with older people in a personal or institutional setting. Each chapter includes bibliographic references for further study.
Rabbi Friedman’s approach begins with a look at traditional Jewish texts that suggest the values that should inform our work and relationships with older people. For example, the commandment to honor one’s parents is worded slightly differently at each of the two accounts of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. In one, the word kavod, meaning honor, is used, while in the other, it is the word mora, reverence, that appears. Rabbinic interpretation suggests that kavod refers to providing for an [aged] parent’s material needs, while mora refers to an attitude, preserving the dignity of the parent. In addition, traditional sources recognize that people, who themselves are caring for elderly family members, have legitimate needs of their own, and that the parent is in fact forbidden from making things harder for a child. This is a more nuanced view of the relationship between adult child and aging parent than one might expect, and indeed, it could be quite useful in helping families sort out their complicated feelings and concerns as they face these issues.
Rabbi Friedman also considers the near absence of life-cycle rituals, Jewish or secular, that mark events and transitions in the lives of older people, apart from retirement and, of course, death. She suggests that pastoral caregivers, families, communities, and elders themselves create, adapt, or use existing rituals to mark other kinds of passages, such as moving to a smaller home, giving up driving, or even adapting to physical limitations and disabilities.
Rabbi Friedman is a strong proponent of lifelong Jewish learning, which can be a source of great satisfaction and meaning for older people. She encourages well-planned inter-generational programming through synagogues and other community groups. Above all, it is clear from her book that Rabbi Friedman has spent many, many hours listening to the joys and sorrows of older people in a variety of settings, and has struggled, as we all should, to truly understand them. Glossary, notes.
Ruth Berger Goldston is a licensed psychologist in Princeton, NJ and a long-time havurahnik.