Yes, we can still honor our aging parents

I wrote this piece in 2003 as a letter to the editor of the NJ Jewish News, at the death of my friends’ father, who was a charming man I’d really enjoyed knowing in his last twenty years. Something reminded me of him recently, so I thought I’d republish it here.

“Last week, I attended the funeral of the father of my close friends. He was 86 years old and died of complications of Alzheimer’s’ Disease. Over the past 7 years, his memory had grown increasingly impaired, and he was a bit unsteady on his feet. Sometimes he’d lose track of his ideas while he was talking. There came a point where he couldn’t prepare his own meals, drive or navigate. He reluctantly agreed to move to an Assisted Living residence. Yet he never sunk into that lonely despair that so often ruins the lives of frail elders. Why?

Mr. B’s four children took turns helping him out every weekend. They arranged for him to travel. They visited him a lot. They brought him to religious services and gave him an honored place at their dinner tables. They weren’t embarrassed by his increasing frailty – they were understanding. They lent him a hand and helped him remember what he needed to know. They continued to include him in their many celebrations with friends and relatives, even though he would sometimes just drift around in a sort of pleasant fog and not make much conversation. Despite his physical illnesses, Mr. B. was happy when he was surrounded by people, especially the people whom he’d always enjoyed, both young and old.

Mr. B. was happy because people helped him continue to do the things that had always been important to him. He continued to attend services regularly at the congregation he’d attended for 50 years. The other people there made sure that he retained as much as possible of the meaningful role he’d played in their services for decades.

Holidays, of course, have their special family rituals. Mr. B. retained his dignity as head of the family because his children enabled him to perform those rituals which he had customarily performed at these ceremonies. He could still  remember how to recite the blessings, even though he could not remember how to find his room down the hall.

Despite his diminishing abilities, this lucky gentleman was never cut off from the social life of his community and family. Too often, though, frail elders do find themselves dishonored, isolated and rejected.

It is our personal duty to give our parents honor and respect. Their weaknesses in their frail twilight years certainly don’t absolve us of that responsibility. If anything, the responsibility is even greater once the person cannot fully take care of himself.

It surely can be a challenge to keep our frail elders involved in our lives. We need to make special arrangements, to allow extra time, and to be very patient. The results of such inclusion will be dramatic, though. Not only will we enable our parents to live out their lives with dignity, joy and peace, we will be teaching the next generation a crucial lesson about how to care for their loved ones. Perhaps this will bode well for the future of all who grow old in this country.”

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