With aging comes challenges which may limit our choices and activities. These include health challenges, financial difficulties, family estrangements, and the loss of loved ones. The Jewish tradition both acknowledges the pain while urging us to relish the joys available to us. The wisdom acquired in our lives can help us to navigate away from the shoals of despair. As Isabelle Allende said; “We all have an unsuspected reserve of strength inside that emerges when life puts us to the test.”
Moving into an assisted living or other facility can be upsetting for all involved. Sometimes our fears about the transition are unrealized as the new resident is presented with opportunities to be social, relieved of responsibilities, and offered better access to health care. The transition can sometimes improve the quality of life for seniors. In addition to psychological and health care benefits, the new resident may find opportunities to engage in faith based activities such as prayer services and holiday celebrations. For family and friends, we can reach into Jewish wisdom to offer support at this time.
“May I suggest that man’s potential for change and growth is much greater than we are willing to admit and that old age be regarded, not as the age of stagnation, but as the age of opportunities for inner growth? The years of old age may enable us to attain the high values we fail to sense, the insights we have missed, the wisdom we have ignored. They are indeed formative years, rich in the possibilities to unlearn the follies of a lifetime, to see through the inbred deceptions, to deepen understanding and compassion, to widen the horizon of honesty, to refine a sense of fairness.”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, 1961 White House Conference on Aging.
Rabbi Akiva says that the people of Israel need their elders just as birds need wings. In this simile, the elders enable the people to ascend, even as the Divine Presence descends towards them. In addition, the elders protect the people from the intensity of their ascent.
“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.” Betty Friedan
Jewish texts derive from an era before retirement was a fully formed notion. However, the concept appears as a directive to the Levites who served as priests in the Temple, demarcating the years of service from age 25 to 50. Yet at the age of 50 they remained in a supporting role. As we complete our service in employment perhaps of industry, government, non-profit work or educational systems, we can follow in the tradition of the Levitical texts and continue to be of service by being supportive of those who continue in roles of employment and by staying engaged in our communities.