Aging Jewish Families

As the Jewish community ages, younger generations face difficult decisions regarding their parents' and grandparents' care.

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While it's difficult for caregivers to reach out for assistance, the community may also fail to notice their needs. In our services and programs, we tend to relate to the Jewish family as a two-generational entity, and we thereby don't even look for other individuals and relationships that may be vitally important to the family unit. We may not notice the strain caregivers are under until it becomes so dramatic it takes them away from us, or shows up symptomatically, in physical illness, marital strife, or a child's acting out.

Community Support

What can the community do to support family caregivers, to make the journey less isolated, and more bearable? Here are some preliminary suggestions.

1. Normative support: We need to acknowledge and celebrate the heroic efforts of family caregivers, from the pulpit, in the classroom, and in communal discourse.

2. Outreach: Offering support and encouragement to caregivers can help them feel connected, even when their participation in communal activities is curtailed while caregiving. We will learn a great deal if we ask how the caregiving is going (rather than avoid an awkward or sad conversation), and how to be supportive.

3. Counseling: Support groups and/or case management services to coordinate the details of a relative's care will make an enormous difference.

4. Respite: What caregivers need the most is a break. Recruiting volunteers to provide respite care for a few hours, or finding funds to pay for adult day care or short-term stays in a nursing home is invaluable. Encouraging caregivers to take advantage of these resources where available is equally important.

R. Simeon b. Yohai said, "…the most difficult of all mitzvot is 'Honor your father and your mother….'" (Tanhuma Ekev, 2). Caring for elders in our families demands more resources than any caregiver can muster alone. Just as we have learned that it takes a village to raise a child, so too, may we come to realize that it takes an entire community to care for frail elders and their caregivers.

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Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman

Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman is the director of Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She is the founding director of chaplaincy services at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center.