Certain words can evoke powerful emotionally biased images, but our mental perceptions of these words are often far from their realities. For example, not long ago, we thought of people with special needs as “disabled,” thereby justifying how we maintained barriers that distanced ourselves from them. Labeling people as “disabled” masked their abilities, but today because of greater inclusion and a change in language to special needs, we’re all the much richer as a community.
Here’s another word than can evoke the kind of dread that often makes us erect emotional walls around people: cancer. Talk with people who have been diagnosed with cancer or some other life threatening disease, and you’ll often hear how their friends cease connecting with them. It’s as if the word “cancer” still conjures up a picture of an imminently terminally ill person lying in a hospital bed, even though that person may live a meaningful life for months and years. Our images of words lag behind their realities because of major changes in technology, medicine and societal values. And that’s equally true of the world “old.”
“Old”-frail, chronically ill, forgetful, dependent, disoriented and declining… sadly, that is experience of some of our elderly population. A line in a prominent prayer recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur addresses this portion of the elderly population: “(God), do not cast us out when we are old, do not abandon us when our strength fails.” When you’ve lived a long life, it’s cruel to be metaphorically placed on a shelf and only dusted off from time to time like some museum relic.
But old age is not created equally. There are many people who are old and incredibly vibrant-but still too often ignored and alone. I’m referring to people who are 75 years and older-well up into their early nineties. And according to the Pew Research Center expect to see lots more really old people in the years ahead. Okay, old people move more slowly than they used to, and you have to enunciate more carefully when speaking with them. (And if we only use these criteria to determine who is old, many of us Boomers would easily fit into this category!). But too often, because of this natural process of slowing down, I’ve watched younger people in settings as diverse as hospitals, restaurants and retail establishments relate to old people as if they lacked basic intelligence.
To be fair, we haven’t had a lot of experience as a society in having so many relatively healthy elderly in our midst. We need some practice in having conversations with them. But ask them about a problem you’re having, a new situation you’ve encountered, the latest book that they’ve read (and don’t be surprised if it’s on their Kindle) or their historical comparisons of today’s leaders with those of the past and you will have an enriching conversation that you won’t be able to have with someone in their 60s or younger.
We need the prayer, “(God), do not cast us out when we are old, do not abandon us when our strength fails,” for the frail elderly. But we could also use a second version that reads, “People-do not judge us as useless because we have slowed down, do not dismiss us as obsolete because we lack the latest iPad, for we have acquired abundant experience and of life wisdom.” From my incredibly good fortune of having ongoing contact with parents, friends and mentors who are in their late 70s to early 90s, I can tell you that they love life, they are inspirational in how they live it, and you can’t Google their knowledge of the human heart. You gain it by spending time with them.
Very soon, synagogues will be filled with young and old for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Congregations tend to focus on the young. While still maintaining that focus, it’s time to start thinking more multi-generationally because the well elderly are too often lonely. They and we are missing out on opportunities to create powerfully meaningful, spiritual and social connections.
A challenge to congregations: don’t just let the well elderly disappear for another year. You have the creativity, the opportunity and the obligation to involve them more in the life of your congregation. Don’t “program” for them. Ask them what they want and need and discover what they can still contribute.