GROWING OLDER BLOG

My newest book is Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older: Finding Your Grit and Grace Beyond Midlife (Jewish Lights, 2015). The book is a guide for readers from all faith traditions on walking the complex path beyond midlife. It sheds light on the spiritual challenges and opportunities of later life through teachings from Jewish tradition, as well as through the stories of elders I have accompanied as a rabbi, chaplain and spiritual director.

I am delighted to share blog posts inspired by this book. Please share your comments and suggestions!

Subject, Not Object: Seeing the Person Living with Dementia

After a lifetime of ups and downs, stretches of peace punctuated by hurt and alienation, I thought this was just the way it would always be. My encounters with my Dad would be superficial, guarded; he would never really see or know me. I surely did not anticipate this moment of incomparable sweetness.

We are sitting on the patio of the nursing home bathed in brilliant autumn sunshine, and my Dad asks, “How can I describe your work to people who ask?” I explain that I help people to find meaning as they age. “That’s so lovely,” he says.

I ask if he’d like to hear a melody I wrote, a blessing for growing older. “Yes, yes!” he instantly exclaims. As I sing the blessing, Dad’s attention is rapt; I feel his energy reaching toward me, almost as if he is jumping out of his wheelchair, he is so utterly present.

I stop singing, and we sit. Just sit. No words need to be uttered. We are both soaking up the sun – and the love – accessible and palpable in a completely unexpected way.

Moments like this one are not the focus of the recent PBS documentary, “Alzheimer’s: Every Minute Counts.” This carefully researched film addresses the very real economic and emotional costs dementia imposes on families and on our society as a whole. It documents the rapidly growing numbers of people with Alzheimer’s and related dementias, the problems they and their family members face as they cope with memory loss and declining functioning, and the dramatic pressures that this will place on the healthcare system in the future. But if you were to look to this film to teach you about the reality of dementia, you would know only about pain, loss, and economic cost.

Looking at my late father with this lens, you would see a bright, accomplished person reduced to a life of dependency and frailty. You would focus on the enormous price tag for four years in a nursing home. You would note the stress experienced by his wife as she faithfully cared for him for several years before this at home, and as she visited him daily, even as she also cared for her mother, who was living with dementia in another nursing home. You might see how sad it was for his children and friends to see this former public official now unable to say what day of the week it was.

But this lens would miss the whole picture, for here was a man who was growing and changing. With so much of the wounded and wounding personality developed over 83 years burned off, here was a soul exhibiting only love and gratitude. Here were healing moments, not one, but many.

We will be enriched if we widen our lens in looking at the realities of dementia. We can see people living with dementia as subjects, not objects. We can transcend our fear and dread. We can be more curious, less dismissive. Perhaps we can ask of the person with dementia:

  • What or whom does he treasure?
  • What gives her pleasure?
  • What pains him?
  • What does she want at this moment, or as she goes forward?
  • How does this moment fit in the narrative of her life?

Despite the immense expense of caring for the bodies and minds of people with dementia, that caring is not enough. We also must tend their spirits. We, neighbors, relatives, community members and paid caregivers, can help them and their loved ones to have moments of meaning and joy. We can enable them to remain connected: to community, to nature, and to the texture of daily life. And as we do this, we will open ourselves to moments of wonder and magic, to being enriched as we walk with them.

Of course, not every person with dementia will transform as my Dad did. There is, indeed, profound pain and loss in this journey. But seeing people living with dementia as subjects, not objects, will enrich their lives, and ours.

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Choose Life: Embracing Existence in the Face of Mortality

“It’s all life until death.” Grace Paley

Rabbi Eliezer taught: “Repent one day before your death.” Rabbi Eliezer’s disciples asked him: Do we know on what day we will die? Then all the more reason that we engage in teshuvah (repentance) today lest we die tomorrow! In that manner, all our days will be transformed. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 153a) 

The call of life in the face of death is to be honest, true, and present. What Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi called the unlived life invites us to embrace, to complete, to reach. Since we know that we will die, but cannot know when, should we not make this day, which could be our last, as full and rich as possible? In this precious, finite time we have, we must seize joy, and savor it. We must be ourselves, for, as an acquaintance’s mother taught her echoing Oscar Wilde, “You might as well be yourself, because everybody else is taken.” We must clean up our messes, ask for, and grant forgiveness. We must follow our hearts, offer kindness and do the good we can. Read the rest of this entry »

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What Calls You Beyond Midlife?

We come full, not empty, to new callings beyond midlife. Mary Catherine Bateson says that we bring with us wisdom garnered from experience, combined with energy, and at least some freedom. She calls this rich accumulation active wisdom. But how do we determine which mitzvah calls us now? There are so many possibilities.

Many people at the cusp of big change, such as retirement, feel overwhelmed by the vast choices before them. Should they take a course? A trip? Get a job? What will they say when someone asks, “What are you doing these days?” It is challenging to figure out what is most compelling when we don’t have an external structure to guide us. To what do we want to say hineini–here I am?

 

Look Back to Give Forward

A place to start in identifying the callings that pull you is to examine your past, as Sara Lightfoot-Lawrence puts it, “look back to give forward.” Look for pursuits and engagements that gave you pleasure or meaning earlier in your life. You might notice threads you dropped, as did my students, Aliza, who had always been interested in art, and finally had a chance to seriously study painting around the time she retired. Even if you are doing something that is entirely new to you, you will, like Abraham and Moses, bring all that you have done and learned to this calling.

You might notice parts of yourself that you did not have a chance to engage, such as my 13 students in an independent living residence, who decided to study for, and celebrate, their belated Bat Mitzvah together. Perhaps you were an activist in your youth, but put that aside in the face of the demands of career or family, and now you will be drawn again to the work of tikkun olam, repairing the world. This work might become a job, what Marc Freedman calls, “encore careers,” in which the next chapter of effort is directed in service. Or, perhaps it is a non-paying passion that will draw you, such as the Granny Peace Brigade, a group of 90+ year-olds who gather in a Center City Philadelphia location every week to protest war and urge peace.

 

Experiment

The terrain beyond midlife is new to us, and, in a sense, new to the world. It is unprecedented to have decades of life to engage beyond childbearing and career. We don’t have many models–this is not your grandfather’s–or grandmother’s–aging. So we need to be adventurers and explorers. As explorers, we should be prepared for false starts, for paths that lead to no particular destination. We may respond to a call, and find ourselves unsatisfied, uncomfortable, or under-stimulated. So we try another.

We need to give a calling time, reflect, adjust, and be ready to let go of this one if it doesn’t feel right. This is part of the journey. It is not a failure to try on something that doesn’t grab us; it is an act of bravery to admit it. We may start over again and again as we seek purpose later in life. This is not only because not every calling turns out to be compelling, but because we keep changing, and readying ourselves for new callings.

Even a calling we take on and stick with may change as our capacities change. It could be that we will need to wrestle with the question: how much is enough? And what if you can’t do what you used to, or what you aspire to? We are obligated to fulfill the mitzvah to the best of our abilities. We need to be honest with ourselves about what we are able to do, and what is too much. This requires humility; it is so easy to get our pride wrapped up in what we are able to do and how.

A way of thinking about this is an instruction I heard once from a yoga teacher. The task, she said, is to do a pose until it is full—effortful, perhaps challenging, but not painful or injurious. That, she said, is the practice–living in that tension between stretching to capacity and accepting limits. It is not about how perfectly we can stretch to do a particular pose, but that we have stretched as far as we can safely go.

Our mitzvah, our calling, can be full, whether we are working at it eight hours a day, or having a few minutes of engagement with it. It can be full if we are doing it from a desk, or a wheelchair, if we get to the task by car, by book, or by computer. Maggie Kuhn, the late founder of the Gray Panthers advocacy group, wrote in her memoir, No Stone Unturned:

“What can we do, those of us who have survived to this advanced age? We can think and speak. We can remember. We can give advice and make judgments. We can dial the phone, write letters, and read. We may not be able to butter our bread, but we can still change the world.”

 

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Circumcising Our Hearts: Becoming Available for Growth in Relating to Parents and They, and We, Age

One consequence of expanded lifespans is extended years of relating to parents in midlife and beyond. While hundreds of volumes have been written about the demands and difficulties of caring for aging parents, relatively little attention has been paid to the developmental opportunities and challenges of the bond between aging parents and children outside of that dimension. Is it possible that these relationships might develop, grow, deepen, even heal over time?  What would it take to consciously approach the work of growing up in relationship to aging parents?

How are we to become available for growth in relationships with parents as we all grow older? The Torah offers a wonderful image of what might be possible. In envisioning a life in covenant with God, the book of Deuteronomy promises:  “God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants that you may love [your God] with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live.”[i] The image here is that the hardened matter covering our hearts will be removed, so that we will have access to all of the love and tenderness within them. As we approach our most primal connections, those with our mothers and fathers, there is often a great need to break through to the heart. Growth and healing are possible, but we need to make ourselves ready.

The Jewish spiritual discipline of Mussar offers a methodology for circumcising our hearts.  Over hundreds of years, rabbis and students have endeavored to refine the soul through conscious development of key traits or virtues, called middot. The practice of Mussar involves reflecting on one’s actions and striving to attain hoiiness in relation to the Middot. We will investigate one key middah as a focus for the effort of opening ourselves to growth in relationship to our parents: the trait of Emet/truth.

 

“Only through truth can a person cleave to God.”

(Maayan haChochmah Beshallah)

“Teach yourself to say ‘I don’t know,’ lest you be caught in falsehood. [BT Berachot 4a]

 

Emet, truth, is the very ground on which a mature life is built. The middah of truth is concerned with our ability to see and acknowledge reality. Practicing emet means letting go of illusions and distorted thinking, meeting the world as it actually is.  This is hard work, as we are prone to develop and act on our assumptions the world around us. We don’t often stop to test the veracity of those assumptions.

In the case of our parents, we might think that we “get” these people. After all, we’ve known them all our lives! Yet, in some profound ways, we humans are mysteries to one another, perhaps especially those who are closest to us. We form impressions of our parents based on our memories of them in our childhoods. Yet, we may have glimpsed only some aspects of the whole people that our parents were, while much remained hidden from us. Moreover, even though we tend to hold on to a fixed concept of who these people are, they have likely changed over time.

Nina had a difficult relationship with her mother throughout her adult life. She had moved far away from the community where she grew up, but her hurt at her mother’s criticism and distance remained with her. As her mother got older, though, Nina realized that it made sense to invite her mother to come to live with her. Nina describes the two years her mother was with her as “the best time in my life.” She decided, she says, to get to know her mother, on her own terms. She says, “I got to see her how she saw herself, how she was in the world outside of our relationship. I saw her strengths, and to see those qualities in myself. I got to truly love her as I never had been able to before.”

Nina met the emet of her mother’s life, and it transformed their relationship. What made it possible for Nina to open herself to her mother’s truth? She brought curiosity and compassion to her new encounter with her mother. This approach allowed her to appreciate her mother’s life as she had not before. When we meet our parents with curiosity, we can come to a deeper understanding of what they have undergone—the suffering, the struggles, as well as the triumphs. We can learn about how they became the way they are, especially about their lives before we came along. Looking at the truth with compassion allows us to see that our parents are flawed, human beings. As journalist Virginia Morris puts it, we come to see each one as “human, vulnerable and limited, a person who did the best he could by you and who is still doing the best he can.”[ii]

Facing our parents as real people helps us to grow up, to let go of grievances, and to relate as best we can in the here-and-now. Vivian Greenberg writes: “Children…who see their parents as imperfect, vulnerable human beings can forgive them, discover ways to encourage intimacy with them, and live their own lives free of crippling guilt.”[iii]  Accepting the past is not easy. One of the reasons that people hold on to anger and grievance is the deep-seated fantasy that it might yet be possible to get what they never had. When we face emet, we recognize that we cannot change whatever was difficult in the past between us and our parents. In realizing this, we may feel a profound sense of loss. 

There are things to be gained by grieving those losses and moving on, however. Taking responsibility for our own lives is essential for us in order to finally grow up, for, as Vivian Greenberg warns, “…if we cannot take responsibility for our own lives, despite gray hair, wrinkles, and perhaps a midlife paunch, we remain always at war with those powerful giants, our parents.”[iv]

 If we let go of unreasonable hopes about our parents, according to Virginia Morris, we might “actually enjoy what is, rather than constantly feeling cheated by what isn’t.”[v]  Like Nina, we might come to appreciate our parents as we were not able to before. We can look for shared ground, and savor the time we have. If it happens that our parents’ difficult traits remain challenging, we will gain peace by surrendering the quest to change them. We relate to them as adults, with as much openness as we can muster. With softened hearts, we can grow more compassionate, and more grounded, even as we are called to care for our parents toward the end of their lives.



[i] Deuteronomy 30:6, my translation.

[ii] Virginia Morris. How to Care for Your Aging Parents. NY: Workman Press, 1996. (page #?)

[iii] Greenberg, Op. Cit., 60.

[iv] Greenberg, Op. Cit., 54.

[v] Morris, Op. Cit., 21.

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Contemplating Dying

Contemplating dying

The origin of the human being is dust, her end is dust. He earns his bread by exertion and is like a broken shard, like dry grass, a withered flower; she is like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that blows away and dust that scatters, like a dream that flies away.  (High Holy Day liturgy, translated by Reuven Hammer)

            This passage, from the Unetaneh Tokef prayer recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, invites us into an extended contemplation of our mortality. The prayer includes stark images of the human lifetime: we are as evanescent as dust that scatters, dry grass that disintegrates, flowers that wither, shadows that pass, breezes that blow, and dreams that fly away.  On Yom Kippur, we not only contemplate death, we practice dying, abstaining for 25 hours from food, water, sex and physical pleasure, and dressing in simple white like the shrouds in which Jews are traditionally buried. We are drawn into encounter with our mortality precisely to inspire us to live our limited days as well and fully as we possibly can. With death in mind, we may be brave enough to face our failings, and resolve to turn toward our truest, best selves. This does not mean, however, that it is not terrifying to glimpse the finitude of our own lives.

            A Talmudic discussion on death features a funny, and heartbreaking series of vignettes about famous rabbis and their endeavors to evade the Angel of Death. One rabbi insisted that it would be inappropriate for him to be taken while in the act of eating the sacrificial meat. Another argued that it would be undignified for him to come to his end in the marketplace. A third rabbi begged for 30 days’ respite so that he could complete his studies; when the Angel of Death later appeared at his home, he asked, “What’s the hurry?”  Clearly, even the greatest sages resist the reality of their lives’ finitude.[i]

“All the world is just a narrow bridge, and above all is not to fear completely.” Reb Nachman does not actually instruct us not to fear, but rather, not to be swallowed up by it. As long as we have breath, we are attached to our life. It would not be reasonable to be unafraid about dying. We can, however, proceed despite fear; this is the definition of true courage. We can hold awareness of our mortality without either obsessing or giving up.

 

Looking back—with compassion

            Try this: Sit in a quiet, comfortable place. Give yourself some expansive time. Settle yourself into your spot, notice your feet resting on the floor, your body supported by your chair. Breathe deeply but naturally. Imagine that today is the last day of your life. With compassion and gentleness, ask yourself:

  • What about my life am I proudest of? Is it a professional accomplishment? The way I raised my children? The kindness I showed to my friends? The beauty I never took for granted?
  • What am I grateful for?
  • Which of my past actions do I regret?
  • What experience or adventure am I deeply sorry to have missed?
  • What do I wish to pass on to my children or others who will follow me?

Take some time to you reflect on these questions.  If you like, jot some notes in a journal. This simple life review affords us a perspective on our lives to this point. As you contemplate the blessings and disappointments of your life so far, try to do so with compassion. Give yourself credit for your strivings and your limits, your glories and your flaws. This process of looking back can also help us to look ahead to shape our futures.



[i] Babylonian Talmud Moed Katan 28a.

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Sustenance in the wilderness: sources of resilience for the family caregiver

The terrain of caring for a dependent loved one can feel barren, like the wilderness the Israelites encountered once they left bondage in Egypt. We may feel lonely, confused, resentful, sad and afraid as we do what we can while our friend, lover, sibling or parent faces decline and ultimate death.

What can sustain us in a harsh surround? For the Jewish people in the wilderness, one source of sustenance was the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire that guided them from one place to the next by day and night.

            As they wandered in the wilderness, the Israelites had no idea which way to go. There were no guideposts around them. There were, however, divine signs to help them as they moved forward. According to the Torah, they were guided by a pillar of cloud by day, and by a pillar of fire by night. For caregivers, the values embedded in Jewish tradition provide an always-available source of orientation amidst the swirl of decisions and dilemmas that surround us. Within the texts and the stories of the tradition are core values that can ground and direct us.

            For example, the great rabbinic sage Hillel teaches, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I, and if not now, when?” This deceptively simple teaching is a wonderful shorthand guide for the caregiver. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” The caregiver, according to this teaching, must attend to his or her own well-being. No one else can do this. Implicitly, the text suggests, if I do not nourish myself, I will be unable to care for anyone else. This first direction is counterintuitive. One woman who was caring for her aging parents told me, “I hate it when people ask me what I’m doing to take care of myself. I don’t have time!” Yet Hillel’s teaching demands that we put ourselves on the “to do” list, for the sake of those we care for, and for our own sake.

            “If I am only for myself, what am I?” The balancing perspective for caregivers comes from the second part of Hillel’s wisdom. We are required to attend to ourselves, but ultimately, we are meant to be there for others. We are fulfilling our human potential when we offer compassion and support to the people around us. I have seen many caregivers surprised and delighted by the wellsprings of patience or sheer physical endurance that have become available to them as they meet unforeseen challenges. One daughter told me that her monthly visits to care for her mother, who was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease and no longer able to speak, healed the pain she had felt over a lifetime of receiving judgment and criticism from her mother. “All of that hurt has just melted away,” she told me.

“If not now, when?” Hillel teaches us the incalculable preciousness of the present moment. As caregivers, we need, in each moment, to discern what is most important right now. There may be three, or seven, tasks simultaneously calling us, but we can only do one thing right now. We cannot put off the most important one. And perhaps the most essential thing is not any instrumental task, not a phone call, or a bill, but being there with the person in our care. The moment may not come again––so can we tolerate frustration and exhaustion and show up with as much tenderness as we can muster?

The values highlighted in this teaching, and those reflected in the vast treasure trove of Jewish text and tradition, like the pillars of cloud and fire that appeared our ancestors, can offer direction and help caregivers to discern our path.

A blessing for the caregivers

My prayer for all of us who sojourn in the wilderness of caregiving is that we will find direction and solace as we companion our dear ones, and that all of us will be sustained by the Source of compassion and life itself in this daunting, but sacred terrain.

 

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Get Wisdom: Moving Toward the Essential

Aging, I feel…is a process that is alive and happening, growing up and getting closer, moving toward the essential. (Debra Winger)

                My late mother-in-law, Miriam, had a very fruitful old age. She did not climb mountains or work at a career. She did not travel the world. She did not write books or invent cures. Rather, this amazing woman, who had survived the Warsaw Ghetto and multiple concentration camps before she came to the U.S. to build a new life and  family, was virtually homebound for several years before she died at close to 90. What she did, in the words of the rabbi who gave her eulogy, was “work the phone.” Miriam maintained a regular telephone correspondence with a couple of dozen relatives and friends all over the country. When you spoke to Miriam, she genuinely wanted to hear about your life. She always had not a kind word and a piercing insight, usually expressed in the form of a perfectly apt Polish or Yiddish saying, prefaced with, “My mama used to say…” After speaking with Miriam, you saw more clearly, or held more lightly, whatever was burdening you. The fruit that Miriam bore, and munificently shared until her dying day, was her wisdom.

            Psalm 90 asks, imploringly, “Teach us to number our days that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.”  As we grow older, making our days count and developing wisdom is our primary work. How are we to get ourselves a wise heart? I would suggest that this task indeed requires effort. Here are a few aspects of the work ahead.

Reflection. Drawing wisdom out of experience involves actively reflecting on what we have gone through. We gain wisdom as we challenge ourselves about what it is we think we know, both about our past and our present. The qualities of curiosity and humility help us to remain open to this evolving process of gaining perspective. It is when we lack these traits that we risk falling prey to foolishness. The sense that we do not know it all keeps us eager to learn more. Awareness of our limits helps us to avoid overstepping our capacity or bounds. We can actually become smarter, or at least wiser, by keeping our egos in check and our eyes and minds open.

            Mining challenges. Growing older inevitably places us in confrontation with loss, limits, change, and disappointment. As unwelcome as these challenges are, it is precisely in facing them that we can deepen our wisdom. For example, historian, Theodore Roszak, suggested in America the Wise that health crises can be a rite of passage in later life, because they impose a “suspension of the ordinary.” In the altered reality of a health crisis, we have an opportunity to be transformed, to enhance our appreciation of the simplest blessings in our lives, and to shift the way we relate to ourselves and others. Of course, this is true with any encounter with vulnerability. We grow wiser by telling the story of our experience, deliberately mining the lessons contained in it. This process helps to prevent the precious gleanings from painful experience from ebbing away as “normal life” returns.

            Seizing the learning in every moment. The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, a 20th century Hasidic sage, teaches that every day offers a particular and unique piece of Torah (sacred learning) to each person. No two days are the same, nor is one individual’s learning for each day identical with anyone else’s. The opportunity for learning from this particular day will not return, he counsels, so we must endeavor to be alert and awake, lest the gift be lost. In this way, we can come into our days (ba bayamim) like the patriarch Abraham. According to the Slonimer Rebbe, Abraham lived fully each day of his very long life, and managed to grasp the wisdom available in every moment. This is the reason, we learn, that Abraham was “old and sated” when he died at 175 years of age.

            May we, too, grasp the wisdom in each day, so that we might make our days count, and activate our hearts of wisdom.

 

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The Campaign’s Secret Weapon: What I Learned from Maddie

It is Election Day in the Obama field office in my neighborhood in Northwest Philadelphia. Volunteers are sprawled in every corner of the chaotic office. They are perched on tables, huddled on cell phones on the floor, milling around waiting for driving assignments. Individuals of every age and ethnicity are eager to help out.

This intense effort is guided by volunteers who have been giving the their days and skills to the campaign for months. There are the greeters, who sign in every single person who crosses the threshold. There is a “comfort captain” who passes through the office distributing cookies and candies from a beautiful basket. There are Neighborhood Team Leaders, who recruited and supervise volunteers in their micro-communities. There are driving captains, canvassing captains and phone bank captains.

And there is Maddie. I’m not sure what her title is, but Maddie is everywhere. Her braids fly as she moves about the office. She has a kind word for everyone, and she is clearly “fired up and ready to go.” She is in the middle of organizing drivers to bring food to voters waiting in long lines at polling places when she collapses. The paramedics are called, and they wheel her out to a waiting ambulance to treat what turns out to be a seizure. Maddie refuses to be transported to the hospital. She is not going to miss out on this day she’s been preparing for since March. Instead, she returns to the office, accompanied by raucous applause, cheers and whoops.

What strikes me about these devoted and able volunteer leaders is that they range in age from their 60s to their 80s. They are experienced, and they are wise. They maintain their cool even when conditions are challenging. They care about the people around them, not just the task that needs to be accomplished. They are responsible and reliable, even, as Maddie demonstrated, in the extreme. These elders are the backbone of the wildly successful effort to register new voters and to get out the vote.

It is now clear that the President’s re-election was due, in large part, to a massive and laser focused people-to-people ground effort. Volunteers were responsible for over 140 million calls or personal visits to potential voters, as well as 1.8 million newly registered voters. The campaign’s vaunted field infrastructure was blessed with talented staff, as well as bright young organizing fellows, who received invaluable training in community organizing. But none of this would have been possible were it not for the elders, who were the lifeblood of this entire endeavor.

There is so much about this campaign that gives me reason for hope. The power of elders in making change is one startling feature. In partnership with young people, older Americans fought for their country. They drew on their lifetimes of experience and their talents to carry out their vision.

As I reflect on this amazing effort, I wonder what else the growing numbers of elders will do to transform our country and our world. Perhaps Maddie and all of her peers who succeeded in this campaign will finally teach us, as the visionary geriatrician Dr. Bill Thomas says “Aging and the aged are not, as so often supposed, the cause of our problems—they are and always have been the source of the answers we need.”

Let us be inspired by Maddie, and all of the elder volunteers, to make the difference we can make, and to treasure our elders who give their great gifts, as well.

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A Time to Heal: Cultivating Forgiveness

Evelyn, a nursing home resident, complained bitterly and regularly about her children. They had “dumped” her in this place; they didn’t invite her to live with them; they didn’t care about her. Kathy, a visitor, tried to interest Evelyn in other topics of conversation—the synagogue, the news, Kathy’s own family—but Evelyn’s focus could not be pried off of her hurt and anger. Kathy was surprised when she met Evelyn’s daughter to learn that she visited several times a week, and that she earnestly tried her best to make life as good as it could be for her mother.       

Evelyn was consumed by her grievance against her family. Her anger left no energy to engage in the community in which she was living, or in relationships that might have nourished her.

All of us have amassed emotional scars by the time we reach later life. We have probably been let down or betrayed at some point by friends, partners, co-workers or family members. Our wounds, even if in the background, are very much alive. Carrying resentment against someone who has wounded us seems, at first glance, to be entirely justified, even righteous. I was wronged! I will never forget it! I deserve this anger! Many of us are nursing our grievances, perhaps even over decades, waiting for the other to take responsibility for the harm we have suffered. Sometimes the people who have injured us are no longer alive; the grievance that we carry has outlived them.

The problem is that the noxious ooze of anger and pain does not hurt the person who hurt us. Rather, it is we who suffer. When we hold on to our painful emotions, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi says, we, too, are imprisoned, for, “The jailer spends as much time in prison as the prisoner. Many elders I’ve known have held resentments so long that they seemed to expand, to grow so big that they have crowded out any goodness in their here-and-now lives.

What if we could be liberated from the poisonous burden of resentment? What if we could be the agents of this release?  Jewish tradition invites us to practice forgiveness on a daily basis. This prayer, which is traditionally recited at bedtime before the Shema, gives us practice at letting go of hurts as they happen, perhaps thereby building up the “muscle” to take on the ones we’ve stored up over time.

I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or provoked me or sinned against me, physically or financially or by failing to give me due respect, or in any other matter relating to me, involuntarily or willingly, inadvertently or deliberately, whether in word or deed: let no one incur punishment because of me.

Experiment with saying this prayer daily, cultivating a sense of release as you let go of grievance or resentment. Start small—with minor hurts—you can always work up to the big ones! I'd love to hear about your experience with this practice.

 

 

 

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Let Us Not Abandon Ourselves as We Age

My friend — I'll call her Ruth — was luxuriating, swimming across a friend's New England pond on a beautiful summer day. At some point, she noticed that she was propelling herself across the water with the breaststroke. "Yuck," she thought, "here I am swimming like an old lady." Ruth, who recently turned 70 and retired from an influential professional position, suddenly found her delight had turned to disgust.

I heard recently about another woman, whom we'll call Ellen, who was musing about her fear of growing old. "Time is slipping away," she said. "It's like a roll of toilet paper that gets smaller and smaller and turns faster and faster, and then it will be gone and I'll die."

Read more from Jewish Exponent, where this piece was published.

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