Jewish Journal


May 29, 2003

Adult Children Get Rite of Passage


I am not a Reform Jew, but I confess that I am often envious of the publications of the Reform movement. Whether I agree with their answers or not, I am impressed by the fact that they ask the right questions, the questions that are on the minds and hearts of our people today. So, for example, some years ago they published a book for children on how to cope with their parents' divorce. It was ahead of the curve in realizing that this was a real issue in many Jewish homes, and in providing a Jewish perspective on it. And last year they published a book in which they asked many different rabbis to respond to the questions that young people need to think about when they enter college.

And now they have published a book that contains both spiritual and practical advice for those whose parents are reaching the age when they need care. It is a book that, once again, is on target for a Jewish community that is aging. Nineteen percent of the Jews in America are older than 65, and the median age in the Reform community is now 48, due in part to the fact that we are having less children and that we are having them later.

There are few greater spiritual challenges in life than caring for parents in their old age. As the old Yiddish proverb has it: "When parents feed children, they both laugh; when children feed parents, they both cry." And so this is a much-needed book.

What makes this book so helpful is that it contains different kinds of writing: both practical and spiritual. In the essays by Rabbis Ruth Langer and Michael Chernick, we are taught what the Jewish tradition has to say on these subjects; in the essay by Rabbi Sheldon Marder, we are given practical guidelines on how to choose a nursing home; and in the essays by Rabbi Hara Person, and others, we are given intensely personal descriptions of how difficult, and yet, how meaningful, caring for those who gave us care can be.

I found the essay by Rabbi Jonathan Kendall titled "Growing Old Is Not For the Faint of Heart" the most moving. He begins by telling how he now takes his mother to the barber for her monthly haircuts, and, as he sits and watches the barber, he ruminates on how their positions have been reversed, on how he now sits where she once sat. Now he is the one who smiles and encourages and she is the one whose spirits need to be buoyed up.

Now she lives in what is euphemistically called "an assisted-living facility." One by one, all the symbols of her independence, starting with the driver's license, have been taken from her, and now she has become dependent on others for the basic acts of bathing, dressing, moving, and he, like her, has had to wrestle with how to come to terms with this reality.

Kendall talks about how he fought every step of the way against accepting the inevitable reality that his mother had to live in such a facility. He writes: "the day we moved in," instead of "the day she moved in" because, as he writes, "a piece of me was going with her." He confesses that he made the arrangements with a mixture of remorse and relief -- remorse that he was not able to do for her what she had done for her mother; relief that she would be in a good place, with like-minded people, with could care for her better than he could himself.

As Kendall heads for the elevator after helping his mother move in, his mind goes back to when he took each of his children to college, helped them unpack and then headed for the elevator. Each of those experiences was a rite de passage -- for them and for him -- but how different this one is.

The birds are supposed to leave the nest -- that is the way of the world. How different this leave-taking feels from those. The essay is heartening, because it tells of how his mother was still feisty enough to complain about the food, the surly staff and the superficiality of the program, and was still capable enough to start a painting program in the "old folks home," as she called it. Her story is better than some of her neighbors whose minds deteriorate as their bodies stay well, or who go through all the indignities that can come with age. And yet, he wrestles with the mixed feelings of helplessness and guilt, of pain and shame, of admiration and ambivalence, of devotion to her and sense of exhaustion in himself, that go with this last task. And these are the thoughts he struggles with as the two of them "venture out to the beauty parlor to have the ninja work his samurai magic once again."

I have not done justice to the elegance of Kendall's writing or to the honesty of his pain in this brief summary, but let me say that this essay alone is well-worth the price of the book. It is a report from the outlands for those who have not yet made this journey: instructive, realistic and deeply moving.

The other essays in this book are each informative and helpful. One, by Rabbi Barbara Rosenthal Berliner, deals with who decides when a parent can no longer make the great decisions about the limits of medical care and other such matters and what happens to the spiritual health of the family if the decision is not made properly. The decision might be made in a matter of hours, but the scars from a poorly made decision remain for a lifetime. Who loved Papa more -- the one who insisted on holding on to him -- no matter what -- or the one who felt that it is sometimes more heroic not to insist on heroic measures? There are no easy answers to such a question, but there are ways in which to deal with such a question, and this essay provides some helpful guidance.

Which is the most difficult of the Ten Commandments to observe? Honoring father and mother must surely be one. When we are young, it is hard to observe, because we want to find our way to independence and they seem to stand in our way. When they are old, it is hard to observe, because it is so hard to care for those who cared for us, and because, when we care for the young we see progress every day; when we care for the old, we see deterioration every day. But observe this commandment we must -- otherwise we are not civilized human beings. And so this book will be a very valuable resource for the generation that must somehow learn how to observe this mitzvah, on which human life depends.

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