As my friends and I navigate our 60s and 70s, we notice — with amusement and consternation — how our conversations have changed. Instead of talking about our kids’ college applications and the best camping sites, we find ourselves discussing back pain and long-term care insurance. The bottom-line concern, of course, is how to create the best quality of life as we age.
My father, who died a few months ago at 94, is one of my best models for aging well. Although Dad could hardly move his body in the past year, he still made people laugh with his quirky sense of humor. He continued to use his imagination and kept sharing his philosophies about life with anyone who would listen. (Sometimes even with those who wouldn’t.)
In many ways, my father never grew up. He viewed the world with curiosity, he sought new experiences and he saw endless possibilities — as children do. I think this is the secret to aging creatively.
Keeping that inner child alive is not always easy, says Stephen Cohn, a Burbank composer who has taught classes on creativity.
“From the time we’re children, we’re told not to daydream,” Cohn said. “We’re expected to focus on the external necessities of survival and practicality. We’re not trained to take our dreaming and our imagination seriously. And yet that is the source of all great ideas. Great art, great physics, great medicine … it all came from somebody’s imagination.”
Of course, focusing on what’s practical allows us to make decisions, raise families, manage our finances and handle day-to-day responsibilities. That’s what adults do.
The problem is we become identified with a role, a job or certain physical abilities. Then, as we grow old, our lives change. A role or job ends. The activities we enjoyed — whether skiing, driving, traveling or cleaning house — aren’t as easy or aren’t possible at all. This transition can be frustrating and painful.
But along with the grief, a vitally important question might then be asked: “Now what?”
“I think too many people buy into the societal myth that when you reach a certain age, you’ve outlived your usefulness to yourself and society,” said Ronnie Kaye, a psychotherapist and author from Marina del Rey. “Accepting that belief is guaranteed to diminish your quality of life. Why settle for that when there is a world of possibilities out there?”
How does one discover new possibilities? How do we tap our imagination as we grow older?
Kaye suggests starting with brainstorming exercises. The purpose is to allow ideas to emerge, to bypass the practical, critical voice that often stops us from seeing outside of the box.
Here’s an example: Ask yourself, “What do I like to do?” Write down everything that comes to mind.
Gardening! Traveling! Hugging babies! Cleaning! Hugging dogs! Skydiving!
Don’t stop to assess whether you can still do it or whether it’s practical. Keep asking, “What have I enjoyed?” Then ask yourself, “What are my skills?” They might include balancing the checkbook, fixing things, organizing, reading, cooking or listening to other people. Write every word that randomly comes to mind — again, without judging.
OK, now use your rational mind — maybe skydiving isn’t such a good idea. Look around your home or community for opportunities to express pleasures or talents. It could be organizing the garage, coaching new entrepreneurs, taking a writing class or reading to children. The options are infinite. Consider brainstorming with others to enhance the process.
Aging creatively doesn’t have to mean that every senior citizen takes up watercolor painting or yoga; it’s about learning to think about your place in the world differently.
When Kaye turned 65 four years ago, for example, she started to rethink her career plans.
“After having been a therapist for 20 years, I wanted to know more, reach people in a different manner and use myself, my skills and my profession in new ways,” she said.
Her answer was to enter a doctoral program in psychoanalysis. Now, at 69, she is in the final phase of completing her doctorate at the New Center for Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles.
Kaye also described an 80-year-old friend who led a very productive life, but is now barely able to walk. Many things she used to do are impossible. After thinking about what she still has to offer, however, the woman started reading to blind people several times a week.
“Finding a solution that would allow her to be useful and engaged, despite her limitations, was a genuinely creative act,” Kaye said.
Richard Braun, 82, is a retired thoracic surgeon from Encino. Since he stopped working, Braun, a violist, joined the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony and plays in a weekly chamber group. He also teaches anatomy on a volunteer basis at UCLA.
“I wanted to use my medical knowledge in some way,” Braun said. “This requires me to invent stimulating ways to convey ideas. I’m so busy since retiring that my wife says I’ll have to go back to work to find more free time!”
As an artist and art therapist, Tobes Reisel often finds herself helping seniors discover a creative part of themselves.
“I work with many people who are not artists. I ask them to scribble with me,” said Reisel, 87, of Sherman Oaks. “They get into their childishness, and many say, ‘You know what? There’s a kid in me that isn’t having any fun!’ So we talk about how they can add that to their life.”
Creativity often evolves from one’s passions. This is definitely the case for artist Peachy Levy. At 82, the Santa Monica resident still gets commissions for creating her unique Judaic textile art.
“I am a passionate person,” she said. “I think a lot of people don’t make time or space for their passions; their life is too frenetic. It might help to look back to your youth, to what you were passionate about. Perhaps those feelings are still there for you!”
Passion is what led Carey Okrand to want to become an entrepreneur at 60. Realizing she could go from preaching about the environment to doing something active and positive, she’s decided to start a business in Los Feliz that will be called The Refill Place. Based on an old concept of reusing containers instead of filling the earth with plastic, the idea will be for people to bring their empty containers to her store and refill them with environmentally friendly cleaning and personal care products.
“The everyday decisions and choices I have to make let me be creative,” said Okrand of Van Nuys. “Growing a business feels like working on a piece of art.”
Discovering or inventing new possibilities at 60 or 80 isn’t the same as it was at 20 or 30.
“To be creative at an older age,” Reisel said, “involves reviewing how you’ve lived your life and then using that in the way that is most honest and fulfilling and enjoyable for where you are now and what you can do now.”
Aging creatively, then, involves rediscovering passions, taking an inventory of current skills and keeping in check any tendency to tell yourself that you are too old to be useful or to have fun. It means reawakening the child inside that can laugh and imagine and create something new, in spite of — or sometimes because of — limitations.
Every day that my father woke up and remembered he could no longer drive or work or get from his bed to the bathroom by himself, I believe he asked himself, “Now what?” Then he made a choice to see possibilities. I hope I can follow his lead.
Ellie Kahn is a licensed psychotherapist, oral historian and documentary filmmaker. She can be contacted through her Web site,
Paul Auster’s haunting view of aging
Paul Auster is best known and often praised for his postmodernist novels and short stories, including “The New York Trilogy” and “Sunset Park,” but his lifetime of literary achievement actually began with a 1982 memoir, “The Invention of Solitude,” his first published work under his own name. Now, 30 years later, he has returned to autobiography with “Winter Journal” (Henry Holt, $26), a haunting and even afflicting valedictory that also sings out in celebration of life.
Auster is now 65, an age when thoughts commonly turn to the longevity of Medicare, IRAs, and life itself. Composed as a series of diary entries, a fugue of seemingly random but carefully chosen moments of reflection, and written as if he were addressing himself, “Winter Journal” announces from the first page that its is concerned, quite literally, with matters of life and death.
“You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom these things will ever happen,” he muses, “and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else.”
It’s a shattering thought for all of us, of course, but especially for someone who has aspired to — and achieved — literary genius. After all, we like to think of our favorite writers as literally deathless, and so do they; one persistent motif in the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer is the appearance of someone who, against all logic and experience, is still alive and well. For Auster, however, the word “deadline” suddenly takes on a new and dire meaning. “Speak now before it is too late, and then hope to go on speaking until there is nothing more to be said,” he writes. “Time is running out, after all.”
“Winter Journal,” then, is not a cheerful book. “[A]t one time or another nearly every part of your body has been subjected to assault,” he observes. “Eyes and ears, head and neck, shoulders and back, arms and legs, throat and stomach, ankles and feet, not to mention the enormous boil that once sprouted on the left cheek of your ass, referred to by the doctor as a wen, which to your ears sounded like some medieval affliction and prevented you from sitting in chairs for weeks.”
Auster casts his memory back and forth across the years —the tender years of early childhood when all of life lay in the future, the explorations and discoveries of adolescence, “breaking the North American masturbation record every month throughout the years 1961 and 1962,” and the years of vigorous adulthood when he was capable of believing that he was the master of his fate. He catalogues the cars he has owned (and crashed), the places where he lived, the moments of triumph and celebration, both at childhood sports and more adult endeavors, including the prostitute in Paris who recited Baudelaire in bed, and the other carnal pleasures he has experienced: “Sexual pleasures first and foremost, but also the pleasures of food and drink, of lying naked in a hot bath, of scratching an itch, of sneezing and farting, of spending an extra hour in bed…”
Death begets the fear of death in Auster as when he recalls “the first full-blown panic attack of your life, which occurred just two days after your mother’s death, followed by several others in the days immediately after that, and for some time now you have felt that you are disintegrating, that you, who were once nature’s strongman, able to resist all assaults from within and without, impervious to the somatic and psychological travails that dog the rest of humanity, are not the least bit strong anymore and are turning into a debilitated wreck.” Yet he refuses to confront the inevitable: “No, you do not want to die, and even as you approach the age of your father when his life came to an end, you have not called any cemetery to arrange for your burial plot, have not given away any of his books you are certain you will never read again, and have not begun to clear your throat to say your good-byes.”
By now, Auster finds himself compelled to make a concession to his own mortality. “Outside, the air is gray, almost white, with no sun visible,” he muses. “You ask yourself: How many mornings are left?” And yet “Winter Journal” is actually an act of defiance. Auster is raging on against the dying of the light, and the sheer strength of his prose is the best evidence that he is still capable of feats of strength as a stylist and a storyteller.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His next book, “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan,” will be published by the Horace Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary year of Kristallnacht. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The Torah of our lives: On writing the next chapter
“Boomers [people born between 1946 and 1964] are the first generation in human history … to reasonably anticipate living well and wholesomely into their 80s and 90s, if not beyond,” sociologist Steven Cohen writes. “But not only are Jews (as others) living longer, they are living in an age of meaning-seeking, with the interest and wherewithal to make living a life of meaning an ultimate and reasonably obtainable objective for any point in their lives.”
I just turned 62; I’m a boomer. My grandparents experienced their lifetimes in three major life stages: childhood, midlife and old age. (The idea of adolescence as a distinct period between childhood and adulthood didn’t develop until early in the last century.) For my parents, there was childhood, adolescence, adulthood and then retirement (to Florida) at 65 and the beginning of old age. For me, it will be different.
There is a lot being written about a new life stage between maturity and old age. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, in her book “The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50,” writes: “The arc of life and learning is continually being expanded and redefined. … [N]ot only are people living longer and thus facing interesting questions related to how to compose their lives, but also that what I am calling the Third Chapter represents a significant and new developmental period in our culture. … This is a chapter in life, then, when the traditional norms, rules and rituals of our careers seem less encompassing and restrictive; when many women and men seem to be embracing new challenges and searching for greater meaning in life.”
One of the places that Jewish boomers are going in search of this “greater meaning in life” is the synagogue. Along with families with young children, they are the next largest group coming to synagogue, whether or not they are actually joining. Boomers are our adult learners; they populate many of our worship services and they come to their rabbis and synagogues for help dealing with their aging parents. At the same time that they are responsible for elderly parents, many still have older children at home or who have recently returned because of the difficulties of this economy. How can they navigate these competing claims? What does it really mean to honor one’s mother and father? How does one parent an adult child? What ought to be the role of grandparents?
We boomers are in the process of composing and reinventing our lives as we realize that time means something different when there is less of it ahead than behind. What will be our legacy? How can we continue to create lives of meaning and purpose when we can no longer define ourselves primarily in terms of our careers or even our families? What would constitute meaningful volunteer work and a chance to give back? Where might there be the opportunity to mentor a younger generation, to share professional and life wisdom? What kind of travel offers the opportunity to do service as well as experience a different culture? What kinds of intentional communities might offer attractive alternatives to living alone in our homes? And what kinds of spiritual resources does our tradition have to offer us as we write this new chapter of our lives?
It turns out that Judaism has a great deal to teach about aging wisely, particularly about the spiritual practices of forgiveness and gratitude that seem to be so central to the work of this stage of our lives. Judaism teaches that God is present in every moment; we acknowledge God’s presence by blessing, ritual and ceremony. Traditional Jewish life cycle rituals of brit milah, bar mitzvah, marriage, and illness and death might have been sufficient for my grandfather’s life, but they don’t acknowledge the reality of my life experience. We first learned this in the early ’70s when the Jewish feminist movement challenged us to think about the Torah of our lives and acknowledge the divinity present in all of our experiences. While one could certainly argue that there are many other rituals that our tradition offers connected to other moments of transition, such as affixing a mezuzah when moving into a new home or expressing gratitude for surviving an illness (Birkhat ha-Gomel), the claim that all of our experiences are Jewish experiences and therefore deserve to be acknowledged through ritual suggests that we turn to creating new rituals to help us think about this new chapter as well.
What are those moments? They include retirement, moving out of the homes where we raised our children, becoming a grandparent, giving up our cars, major birthdays, reaffirmation of marriage vows, and even choosing whether to begin a new relationship when a beloved spouse no longer recognizes us because of advanced Alzheimer’s.
As USC anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff taught, there is danger in creating new ritual. It needs to feel authentic and convincing by somehow echoing the power of more familiar ritual and linking us to the cosmic narrative of our people reflected in Torah. We need to touch not only the Torah of our own lives; these new rituals must also connect us to the Torah of tradition.
The norms, rules and rituals of this stage haven’t yet been written; we are writing them together as we compose this next chapter of our lives enriched by the insights of Jewish tradition. I look forward to a challenging and engaging conversation.
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The closure of Motion Picture Home makes the future uncertain for residents
One day last spring, Jill Schary-Robinson Shaw was walking through a quiet, darkened corridor in the long-term care unit at The Motion Picture Home, the iconic Woodland Hills nursing home for entertainment industry veterans and their families. Hardly anyone was around — lights were dim, residents alone in their rooms — as Schary-Robinson Shaw, the daughter of Isadore “Dore” Schary, who ran MGM in the 1950s, wheeled her husband, Stuart Shaw, a resident of the home, around his desolate indoor neighborhood.
“There used to be wonderful entertainments,” Schary-Robinson Shaw said. “Pianists, musicians. But it’s all changed. Replaced by a mood of tension — a foreboding.”
It wasn’t always like this. In fact, the home, originally known as the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, was once considered a pristine palace, inhabited by a bustling community of industry workers — like Bud Abbott of Abbott and Costello, Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel from “Gone With the Wind” and Maurice Costello, a vaudeville actor whose granddaughter is Drew Barrymore. Even amid the home’s obvious signs of decay, there is still nostalgia for a happier past. Throughout the place, memories of the home’s glory days loom large through the lingering spirits of Hollywood’s ghosts.
“Sadie, you won’t believe this,” Schary-Robinson Shaw said to a passing nurse on the ground floor of the Jack H. Skirball Health Center.
“What happened?” the nurse asked. “Don’t give me bad news …”
“It’s good news,” Schary-Robinson Shaw said with a smile. “He wants a sandwich.”
The nurse laughed, relieved.
Shaw, 82, suffers from Parkinson’s disease and related dementia, so it had been awhile since he’d asked for anything, and the request delighted his caretakers.
Lately, the only joy around here seems to be in the movie memorabilia lining the hallways — where Rosalind Russell smiles a toothy, actress smile in a photo on the Rosalind Russell Wall. But even that tends to deepen the contrast between the rollicking fantasy of the movies and the home’s now-diminished quality of life. For 70 years, the Wasserman Campus was the crown jewel of the Motion Picture and Television Fund (MPTF), serving as home to generations of elderly movie stars, producers, directors, their crews and their families. But everything changed in January 2009, when MPTF, the nonprofit that operates the home, announced plans to shutter its long-term care and hospital facilities. Long-term care was costing the fund $1 million per month, they said, and threatened to bankrupt the entire fund.
The decision to eliminate long-term care marked the end of an era. The campus would no longer accommodate the industry’s most elderly and infirm — its most vulnerable clients — a move many felt was contrary to the fund’s founding purpose. According to entertainment industry lore, the fund was created in the 1920s by affluent Hollywood stars — Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford among them — and built its reputation on a bold and inviolable promise: to always take care of industry members in need. Over the years, the home has become highly regarded, both for its beautiful setting and for its continuum of care — the promise that once a person retired, he or she could count on finishing life there.
But even as MPTF chose to close long-term care for financial reasons, the fund continued to invest in other newer facilities on campus. In July 2007, the Saban Center for Health and Wellness opened, a $20 million, state-of-the-art fitness facility that stretches over 36,000 square feet and includes the Jodie Foster Aquatic Pavilion, with its shimmering warm-water pool and a high-tech gym.
Meanwhile, in the 19 months since the closure announcement, the home’s resident population has dwindled from 134 residents to just 47; at least 33 were moved to other facilities, a dozen more resettled elsewhere on the campus, and another 60 have died. The remaining few have launched a fierce resistance, casting themselves as refuseniks in a complicated saga that has sparked moral outrage among many in the entertainment community. Bolstered by a pending lawsuit, the conflict has gotten repeated play in the press and divided the entertainment community between those who support the closure (read: the fund, its leaders and administrators) and those who don’t (the residents, their families and mainly blue-collar workers).
The battle has often been ugly. Just last week, a report from the California Department of Public Health was released, reportedly saying the fund violated state law in transferring more than 30 residents out of the facility without official 30-day discharge notices explaining their rights, including the option to appeal relocation. This is just one in a long line of twists and turns in a saga that has cast a dark pall over the fund’s once-virtuous image.
But the fund is not solely responsible for the problem. Much of the imbroglio stems from changing trends in health care: With people living longer and birth rates declining, the need for elder care is rising, along with the requisite costs, while the pool of available caregivers is shrinking. This new reality poses an additional challenge to heath-care organizations like the MPTF, which have adopted a new ethos in elder care that promotes “aging in place” — at home, instead of in a facility.
A Moral Dilemma
But while there’s no clear villain in this fight, there are, unfortunately and indisputably, victims. Because stewing beneath the surface of all the drama is actually a profound moral dilemma: What happens when escalating costs of health care get stacked against the dignity of human beings? And what will become of the 47 residents still living in limbo, caught tragically in the crossfire?
Last April, Schary-Robinson Shaw considered her answer.
“[The fund] figured, I’m sure, let the people who are here stay …” she said, lowering her voice to a whisper, “until they are … [dead], but it changes the character of the place.”
She and Stuart have been married 30 years, and he’s been living at the home since 2008.
“We thought it would be forever,” Schary-Robinson Shaw said. So word of the closure came as a shock. “I thought, ‘Well it can’t happen. We’ll fight it,’ ” she said, adding: “Stuart heard about it and said, ‘You’ll never find me again. They’ll take me somewhere, and you’ll never know where I am,’ ” she recalled. “They sense in the air what’s going on because the energy here has changed so radically.”
Early on Jan. 14, 2009, MPTF management gathered some staff in an activity room and told them the plans to close long-term care and the campus hospital by the end of 2009. Within hours, letters were delivered to residents’ rooms stating, “No one will be moved for at least 60 days,” although some residents’ family members say social workers immediately began knocking on residents’ doors, urging them to relocate. Families were distraught — where would they find comparable care? Residents believed they would stay at the home for the rest of their lives, so many had invested in their own care by donating what savings they had to the fund; as a result, their dependence on Medi-Cal narrowed their options. Because the MPTF had Hollywood behind it — and because the presence of a campus hospital merited a higher rate of reimbursement from state and federal health entitlements — almost anywhere else residents could go would be a compromise in care.
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Creativity Cracks the Aging Code
As we age, creativity often peaks, and our need to create soars: Georgia O’Keeffe, for instance, did some of her best work in her later years, and Grandma Moses didn’t start painting until she was in her 70s. Likewise, Laura Ingalls Wilder was in her 60s when she began to write her “Little House on the Prairie” books.
Besides the satisfaction of giving in to the urge to create, more and more research is pointing to the value of taking up a new interest, hobby or craft as you age — learning an instrument, challenging yourself with word games and crossword puzzles, seeking out unique experiences. Not only can these creative activities help you stay active and interested in life, but they also have potent mental and physical effects, too, which researchers are only now beginning to explore.
What they’ve learned so far: We need the charge of doing something creative to feel good mentally, particularly as the decades pass. According to neuroscientist Gregory Berns, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University and author of “Satisfaction: Sensation Seeking, Novelty, and the Science of Finding True Fulfillment” (Henry Holt, 2005), that’s because the level of the brain chemical dopamine, which brings on a natural high, declines as we age. By seeking out novel experiences, we can trigger dopamine surges and regain that feeling of satisfaction.
George Washington University psychiatrist Gene Cohen, author of “The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain” (Basic Books, 2005) and an expert on the health benefits of creativity for older adults, says that trying new things and being creative also promotes brain plasticity (flexibility and growth) and even prompts our brains to rewire, which may fend off dementia and help to maintain health. “When you challenge the brain, your brain cells sprout new connections, called dendrites,” he explains, “and new contact points, called synapses, that improve brain communication.”
Cohen has the data to prove that creativity has a powerful anti-aging effect on the mind and body: In a two-year study of healthy older adults (over age 65) sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, he found that those who engaged in painting, writing, poetry, jewelry making or singing in a choir had better overall physical health, made fewer visits to the doctor, used less medication and had fewer health problems than a control group that didn’t participate in cultural programs. The “artsy” group also had better morale and reported less loneliness thanks to a feeling of self-control and mastery, and from maintaining their social engagements. “This study proves that you can’t have a real health-promotion program for the elderly without an art component,” he said.
Another benefit of creative activities: They’re sustainable.
“Art has been in the soul of the species since [the time of] cave people, and its benefits make us keep coming back to it,” Cohen said. So while you may not stick to an exercise program, you may stick to an art program — which will not only give you a psychological boost, but also a brain boost.
Creative pursuits can also help us relax and distract us from stressful situations — and the better we are at relieving stress, the longer we’ll live and the healthier we’ll be. Harvard’s Dr. Herbert Benson reports that rhythmic and repetitive activities such as knitting and sewing can reduce blood pressure, heart rate and other physical measures of stress. And Harvard’s Dr. George Vaillant, who followed 824 people from their teens to old age for over 50 years, found that creativity is one of the pursuits that makes retirement rewarding and satisfying.
The ‘If Not Now, When?’ Phenomenon
Cohen says that as we enter our 40s and 50s, our brains start firing on all cylinders. We begin using both sides of our brain more (the logical and analytical left side and the artistic right side), which stimulates us to be more creative — and being more creative prompts us to integrate both left- and right-brain capabilities in a happy cycle of artistic energy. As an added bonus, we become more confident and comfortable with ourselves as we age, and so we may cast off the need to conform: After 40, we want to showcase our true selves through the way we speak, act, dress and the things we do. And we may shed the “should have” way of living we previously endorsed, embracing instead the life we really want to live.
“There is a lovely interlude in middle age, when we haven’t lost the mental nimbleness of youth and yet we’ve gained wisdom,” said Sue Shellenbarger, author of “The Breaking Point: How Female Midlife Crisis Is Transforming Today’s Women” (Henry Holt, 2004). This is when creativity can blossom with age, she notes, and become a means for validating who we are now.
Cohen agrees that many people in mid- to late life go through a psychological “liberation” phase characterized by an increasing urge and feeling of freedom to do the things they’ve always wanted to do. They hear an inner voice that asks them “If not now, when?” and “Why not? What can they do to me?” that gives them the courage and confidence to try something new and self-expressive.
Boosting Your Creativity
So where and how do you start to put more creative oomph in your life? “Creativity is a form of problem-solving,” explains Tera Leigh, an artist and author of “How To Be Creative If You Never Thought You Could” (North Light, 2003), so it can apply to almost any situation in life. What’s more, small changes in your attitude can have a big impact on your creative output:
• Take your creative urges seriously. Shellenbarger encourages thinking about what truly is going to make you happy in old age. “Go toward what gives you joy and allot time to pursue these things — an hour or two a week, at least, and hopefully more.”
• Find your creative personality. Relax; you don’t have to search for it. “Your creative personality is already inside of you,” Leigh said. “You don’t have to do anything except invite it to come out and play.” That said, some people are Martha Stewart types who like detail-oriented arts, like quilting, beading or decorative painting, while others may have a passion for plunging in and making a mess, so they might prefer ceramics, cooking or scrapbooking. Experiment to find which creative pursuits best suit your style.
• Start thinking of new ways to do old things. Rearrange your furniture, throw a new ingredient in an old recipe or learn a new dance step. Or “challenge yourself to come up with five new ways to do something at work that bores you now,” Leigh advised. “These are simple ways to train yourself to think of life in a new way. The more you think outside the box, the more it will become a habit.”
• Create an artist’s space for yourself. Even if it’s just a couple of boxes for your art materials that you hide on a shelf or under the bed, it’s important to honor your artistic urges by claiming a space to express them, Leigh said.
• Take a class or join a group. One of the major benefits of creativity is that there are lots of classes to enhance it and they offer lots of opportunities for socializing — both important, since aging studies indicate lifelong learning and having a strong social network are critical to a happy, healthy old age.
Nancy Monson is the author of “Craft to Heal: Soothing Your Soul With Sewing, Painting, and Other Pastimes” (Hats Off Books, 2005).
The joy of teaching
Never Too Old to Write a Letter … of Torah
The Jewish Home for the Aging has never had a Torah it could call its own. Since the home first opened in 1912, synagogues or individuals have donated Siferei Torah to the senior-living community, but the scrolls were often old and tarnished, with faded letters or finger smudges on the parchment. These Torahs are considered pasul, or unfit for public reading, but they were the only ones available to the home for religious services.
Now the Reseda-based home, which provides care to about 2,200 seniors through its in-residence housing and community-based programs, is in the process of creating its own kosher Torah — a “Torah for the Ages,” as the project is being called.
“It’s upsetting to this point we haven’t had our own Torah,” said Corey Slavin, vice president of fund development, who with home CEO Molly Forrest conceived the project.
Slavin said the $200,000 raised for the project more than covers its costs, and remaining funds will be dedicated to various programs and services at the home. The home expects its Torah, begun April 13, 2008, to be completed sometime in 2010.
Rabbi Shmuel Miller, who has worked locally as a sofer (Torah scribe) for 15 years, was commissioned to write the Torah, which will rotate between the home’s synagogues at the Eisenberg Village and Grancell Village campuses when finished. Officials hope the Torah will inspire its residents and their families to remain or become connected to their faith and community.
The Torah’s production is quite a community effort. In keeping with the 613th and final commandment mentioned in the Torah — “Now write this song for yourself and teach it to the Children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19) — residents, family members, sponsors and anyone else who wants to may write a letter in the home’s Torah. Thus far about 100 people have written in the scroll.
Rabbi Sheldon Pennes, the home’s spiritual life director, said that writing in the Torah is considered the responsibility of each Jew.
During a writing session on Feb. 22, 101-year-old Cedelle Weiner found herself up close and personal with the Torah for only the second time in her life.
The first time was a year ago.
She said she did not feel very Jewish until coming to the home and found she was inspired to study with Rabbi Anthony Elman, who works at the home’s Grancell Village campus.
“This is a completely new life for me,” Weiner said as she underwent the ritual hand washing and said the appropriate blessings.
After sitting down next to Rabbi Miller, the scribe, Weiner put her hand on his and watched as he filled in a silhouetted letter from the word hamoftim (“wonders”) from the Torah’s penultimate sentence: “He had no equal for all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and all his servants….” (Deuteronomy 34:11).
“The home is fantastic,” Weiner said when she was done. “I have been entertained, and now I’m getting a Jewish religion I have never had. At 101, I’m doing something different, and I am now writing [in the Torah], which I never did before.”
Rose Bentow, 86, almost couldn’t contain her excitement as she fulfilled the commandment. She was one of several Holocaust survivors who were sponsored by family members, community members or total strangers to come and write a letter in the scroll.
The moment harkened her back to her small Polish town, circa 1928. Her grandfather told her to stay out of a particular room because a man was writing the Torah and couldn’t be bothered.
Little Rose’s curiosity got the better of her, so she quietly opened the door.
“I said, ‘He’s playing with a feather. He’s not writing,’” she recalled. “I asked my grandparents, ‘Why can’t I go in?’ They said, ‘This is how you write the Torah.’”
Pennes, the home’s spiritual life director, said everyone experiences the moment differently.
“It looks like just someone writing letters on a piece of parchment,” he said. “But it’s a spiritual event. People feel it spiritually, emotionally. It’s hard to put into words.
“Children see it simply. But when you’re older, you appreciate it differently, especially when we recite the Shehecheyanu. The idea of living to this point is amazing. That process heightens sensitivity to the mitzvah that’s about to happen.”
For more information about the Torah for the Ages, visit http://www.jha.org.
‘Original Grandparents’ Blog From Boyle Heights
Active living is the key to successful aging
Dr. Roger Landry wishes senior citizens would stop acting their age. Landry, president of Masterpiece Living, LLC, a consulting firm for senior communities that emphasize healthy aging, observes, “Nothing in our DNA dictates that we can’t stay vital into old age. We need to adopt a ‘use it or lose it’ approach to our minds, bodies and spirit.”
After all, Landry points out, Grandma Moses began her illustrious artistic career in her late 70s and lived to 101, painting more than 20 canvases in her last year of life. “I hear inspiring stories like this every day,” he said. “Recently, I met a woman who parachuted down to her 90th birthday party.”
You don’t need to parachute into active senior living, but modest exercise is essential. Not only does exercise build muscle tone and strength, it also creates a feeling of confidence and competence. “When you are physically engaged in life, you’re more ready to try other activities,” Landry says.
Ed Abramson may be living proof. Now 86, the L.A. resident is a highly decorated World War II veteran whose bravery earned him a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Presidential Citation, Combat Infantry Badge and numerous other medals. As a member of the Army’s 90th Division, Abramson participated in the landing at Normandy on Omaha Beach.
Abramson retired 17 years ago, having run a sales company specializing in high-end furniture for architects and designers. In that time, he’s developed new interests, taking up oil painting, studying the Torah and exercise — all avidly. His seascapes and still lifes grace the homes of friends who admire his work, and one of his granddaughters has asked him to paint Jerusalem’s Western Wall for her apartment.
He enjoys spending quiet evenings with his wife of 40 years, June, as well as playing with his four great-grandchildren. And, barely one month after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor on his lung, Abramson still hits the gym three times a week, where he does an eye-popping 125 sit-ups each time, 45 minutes in a combined walk/jog on the treadmill and a variety of other exercises.
“Sometimes I don’t feel like working out, if I’m tired or have aches and pains,” he admits, “but I force myself to go, since I know I’ll feel a lot better afterward. Working out is a key to feeling good,” he says.
A combination of mental stimulation, social connections and physical challenge is a perfect example of what Landry calls successful aging.
“Research has smashed the stereotype that aging means automatic feebleness or crankiness. People who remain physically, mentally and socially active can maintain high levels of functioning well into their 80s and 90s,” he said.
Landry points to exciting research in the last few years that has focused on the importance of “social connectivity” and its connection to overall brain fitness.
“We’ve always known that it’s good to be with people, but there is a physiological basis for it,” Landry says. “The DNA looks different in those who are socially connected than in those who are not.”
For example, the telomere, which is the end of the strand of DNA, gets shorter and shorter as people age. However, Landry says telomeres shorten more slowly in people who stay socially connected, appearing as a younger cell.
People who maintain strong connections with friends, loved ones and confidants also have lower risks of just about every type of illness, including cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Left unchecked, older adults who lose meaningful engagement with people and activities can become depressed, marginalized by society, losing their physical and mental vitality and becoming at greater risk for assisted living.
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Landry said. “Older people can not only continue to have meaning, purpose and activity in their post-retirement years, they may even find a new purpose, unencumbered by work and parenting obligations.”
Landry recommends that older people do the following each day: exercise for at least 30 minutes (though sedentary individuals should check with their doctors before beginning an exercise program), learn something new to stimulate brain function, meet with or call friends, and do anything they find meaningful, such as joining a book or other special-interest club, doing volunteer work or picking up an old hobby.
“Think back to things you may have enjoyed earlier in life, whether it was stamp collecting, crafts, gardening or politics. Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a group out there for you,” he said.
Judy Gruen’s most recent book is “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement.”
Searching for the soul
Israel’s geriatrics study tour inspires professionals
At the Beit Shirley senior residential and day care facility in Dimona, the staff has installed motion sensors to help cut falling incidents by half. But it’s the addition of a backup system that caught the attention of visitors participating in the first International Geriatric Study Tour in Israel — small dogs have been trained to notify staff when an older resident falls. These same dogs also do double duty at Beit Shirley during physical therapy, providing a lighter atmosphere to encourage greater participation by its senior clientele.
“It is a pleasant place to spend time. It makes me think of improving the nursing facilities in my community,” said Karen Alexander, director of Eldercare Services in the United Jewish Communities of Metrowest New Jersey.
Nearly a dozen eldercare professionals and paraprofessionals spent three days in January on a whirlwind tour of Jerusalem, Beersheva and Dimona, visiting day-care centers, sheltered housing arrangements and full-service facilities; listening to lecturers addressing such topics as how different ethnic groups care for their elderly and innovations in Alzheimer’s care, and learning about new developments in aging-related services.
The Jan. 8-10 tour was jointly organized by the American Society on Aging (ASA), one of the largest U.S. organizations of multidisciplinary professionals in the field of aging, and Melabev, an award-winning Jerusalem nonprofit care agency for elderly people with Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases.
“On my last trip with Melabev I was amazed by the energy and enthusiasm of the volunteers and professionals in Israel in this field,” said Amy Eisenstein, an ASA representative and education coordinator with Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “I thought of bringing the innovations to the attention of other professionals to enable them to think outside the box.”
“We’re going on our expertise,” tour co-coordinator Rakel Berenbaum of Melabev’s Resource Center said. “In Israel’s compact area, its multicultural population has different approaches and frameworks for the elderly. While similar facilities may exist in the United States, they’re spread out in a much larger area. For the itinerary we looked for places that offer quality care with innovations that participants can learn from.”
Those participating in the tour hailed from the United States, Australia, South Africa, the Ukraine and Israel, and qualifying participants earned 30 continuing education units from the National Association of Social Workers.
“We had an outstanding taste of many aspects of care for older adults,” said Paul Bennett, project director of the System’s Change Grant at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Bennett’s research focuses on changing the system of services to older adults from nursing homes to home and community-based programs.
“In recent years the trend throughout the United States is towards nursing home diversion in order to save federal funds. It would be ideal if older adults in nursing homes could reenter and reestablish themselves in the community. At home the older adult doesn’t need services around the clock, but rather intermittent services,” he added.
Bennett was particularly interested in a presentation by JDC-ESHEL, a nonprofit organization founded and supported by the Israeli government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which strives to improve the status of the elderly in Israel through planning and developing new and innovative services.
The organization has about 200 supportive communities that enable the elderly to remain in their own homes among friends and familiar surroundings as long as possible, even when they become frail, by delivering necessary services to their homes. “These communities have an av kehilla [community father] similar to a case manager. The av kehilla is almost like a son whom the older adults can turn to,” Bennett said.
Tour co-sponsor Melabev, a Hebrew acronym that means “heart-warming,” operates nine day centers throughout Jerusalem. The organization’s efforts ease the burden on families, enabling them to keep elderly relatives with dementia in the warmth of the family home and in the familiar community for longer than might happen otherwise. By forestalling or preventing institutionalization, Melabev’s services are considered a cost-effective strategy.
The centers provide a therapeutic and social framework that enhances the quality of life for those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease or similar disorders. Family members continue their daily activities, knowing their relatives receive care in a supportive environment while enjoying activities like physiotherapy, occupational therapy, art, music, dance therapies and cooking.
Melabev also runs memory clubs for those suffering from mild memory loss, a memory assessment clinic and home care. The centers’ counseling and support groups for family and caregivers are offered in a few languages for the city’s immigrant populations. Savyon, an innovative computer program developed at Melabev, helps activate patients and stimulate cognitive functions.
The centers’ multifaceted services are backed up by a devoted cadre of volunteers, including retirees and healthy older adults who want to assist those less fortunate.
Volunteerism in Israel is a major ingredient in many thriving social enterprises. During the tour, the group visited Jerusalem’s Yad Sarah House, headquarters of Israel’s largest voluntary organization with 6,000 volunteers in 103 branches throughout the country.
Yad Sarah provides a range of free or nominal cost services designed to make life easier for sick, disabled and elderly people and their families, thus saving money for the government.
“The volunteer guide at Yad Sarah had such a sense of pride in her volunteer work that I was wondering what we can do to inspire our volunteers to have such a sense of pride,” Alexander said.
Plans are already under way for a new study tour to northern Israel next year.
“By participating in the tour and seeing many programs and ideas, I’m kept motivated,” ASA’s Eisenstein said.
Amy Eisenstein will give a presentation about the tour and provide details about a 2009 tour at the American Society on Aging and the National Council on Aging conference (www.agingconference.org) in Washington, D.C., March 26-30.
L.A. displays eco efforts to Israeli delegation
Science of hearing loss moving near speed of sound
The music coming from Bob Dylan and his band at the indoor concert is awesome, but what I can hear of his vocals suggests that people backstage are strangling frogs and stepping on ducks.
Sure, Dylan’s voice is throaty and growly, but he can articulate his songs as well as anyone. I know it from his CDs. At a distance of more than 50 yards from the stage, however, the form of his words, especially the higher frequencies of his consonants, are lost in the hurricane of sound from the mighty speakers and the reverberations of the theater’s vast interior.
If I were a hearing-impaired person, I might switch my hearing aid to the “T” setting and get the best of Bob with sound of near-studio CD quality, while the hearing-normal folks around me were still worrying about those frogs and ducks.
At least I could do that if the concert were taking place at the DeVos Performance Hall in Grand Rapids, Mich., or the Rialto Cinemas Lakeside in Santa Rosa. These are among the growing number of facilities equipped with induction loop systems that broadcast directly from the output of instruments and microphones to hearing aids equipped to receive them.
Science is ringing in a new era in the world of the hearing-impaired, and the technologies to accommodate, treat and prevent hearing loss — and even cure it — are advancing at almost sonic speed. And that’s welcome news, considering how doctors are wringing their hands over study after study predicting hearing loss for a generation that seems constantly connected, almost from birth, to MP3 players.
Age is the major cause of hearing loss, and your level of predisposition to it is genetic. If your parents lost hearing with age, it’s likely you will, too. Age-related hearing loss is found in about one-third of people older than 60 and half of people older than 80.
The hearing loss comes from breakdown of the “hair cells” in the cochlea (the spiral-shaped part of the inner ear containing the auditory nerve endings). There are some 16,000 to 20,000 of them in each ear, and each hair cell is believed to have about 100 tiny hairs known as stereocilia. Sound causes pressure variations in the cochlea, which makes the stereocilia vibrate and send impulses to the brain.
First lost with a combination of age and excessive sound — like loud music from your iPod — are the hair cells that resonate to higher frequencies, which is why speech becomes harder to understand as the ability to hear the higher frequencies of consonants disintegrates. But that could change, thanks to research at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles.
“We’re developing totally implantable hearing aids, so we may some day implant a device allowing a person to hear without having an [external] aid,” said John House, the institute’s president.
Within five years, such hearing aids should be sufficiently developed that the institute will be implanting them in children on a regular basis, House said
Among other projects at the House Ear Institute are hearing aids that completely bypass the ear and wire sound directly into the brain.
“Many years ago, we developed a process of implanting electrodes directly applied to the surface of the brain in the area of what’s called the cochlear nucleus, where the nerve attaches to the brain,” House said. “Now we’re working on penetrating electrodes, not only to go on the surface but to penetrate the surface of the brain. That’s called a penetrating auditory brainstem implant. We’ve implanted eight or 10 now.”
Founded in 1946 by House’s father, Dr. Howard P. House, to advance hearing science and improve the quality of life, the institute is among the world’s leading centers of hearing-related research and education. The connection of hearing to cognitive function is taken seriously.
“We’re now screening newborns for hearing loss, something that was developed at the House Ear Institute,” House said, “identifying them at birth, rather than waiting until parents notice they’re not responding at the age of 1, or 2 or 3 years old.”
Besides surgical and other medical interventions, the institute also does research and development on hearing technologies, such as signal processing algorithms applicable in hearing aids. Hybrid electrical-mechanical hearing aids are another example: The cochlea is implanted with an electrode for high frequencies associated with subtle voice recognition, while standard hearing aids provide the lower frequencies.
“We’ve been working on that for the past five years, and it’s still investigational,” House said. “Maybe within five years, we’ll be able to implant hybrid [hearing aids] in people who have residual hearing but not enough to understand speech.”
The hearing aids of today are digital, with increasingly powerful microchips and software that can customize to the individual’s frequency spectrum of hearing loss and can adjust to the conditions of a noisy gymnasium or a quiet garden. Hearing aids are moving toward unprecedented abilities to convey subtleties like footsteps in another room, the sound of the wind, the nuances in music or the voices of loved ones.
“Analog tends to amplify everything, whereas with digital we can actually tune it to respond only to whatever frequencies are needed, and we can insert different programs so the hearing aid can respond to different sounds,” House said. “There have been tremendous advances in hearing aids in the last five years.”
One example, House said, is that of multiple-microphone hearing aids available just in the last two or three years, which help filter out background noise and tune in on close-up speech. The newest, he said, available in just the two or three years, is the “open-fit” hearing aid. It uses a narrow and inconspicuous tube to carry amplified higher frequencies into the ear, leaving the ear largely open to a natural inflow of the lower frequencies without completely plugging the ear like the traditional ear mold.
“In the past, hearing aids couldn’t do that because they couldn’t eliminate the squeal, the feedback problem,” House said.
Gene test kits — can they lead to dating services?
Joe ‘Master Blaster’ Weider still going strong
Bodybuilding guru Joe Weider, who discovered and trained Arnold Schwarzenegger, among other champions, walks with a slight limp into the second-floor conference room in one of the buildings bearing his name in Woodland Hills. Outside, Tuscan columns of this Greco-Roman building support a frieze of Olympians engaged in wrestling, archery, running and weightlifting.
Even at 86 years old, Weider gives you the sense he might have once been one of those Olympians. As he approaches the head of the table inside this wood-paneled room, Weider appears dapper and powerful, his muscular torso still filling out the gray pinstriped suit he wears with a starched white shirt and red power tie.
A young assistant helps Weider into his chair, a concession to his age. But the man who says he was “born with a barbell in my hands” in his book, “Brothers of Iron: Building the Weider Empire” (Sports Publishing, 2006), retains a strong handshake even after undergoing a heart valve operation and back surgery in recent decades.
Weider’s twin interests in history and art are reflected in the Frederic Remington bronze sculptures of cowboys and Indians on horseback that adorn the conference room, as well as sculptures of Abraham Lincoln and Weider himself outside the room. A teacher once told him that he should be an artist, and indeed he says that that could have been his career had he not chosen bodybuilding.
His artistic sensibilities can be seen in his illustrations of the male body framed in the downstairs lobby, which appeared in the inaugural issue of Your Physique, the first publication in his magazine empire and the precursor to Muscle & Fitness. In 2003, he sold Weider Publications titles, including Muscle & Fitness, Shape, Flex and Men’s Fitness, to American Media, Inc., for roughly $375 million, Weider says. Not bad for a Depression-era kid with a seventh-grade education who invested his life savings of $7 into putting out the first issue of Your Physique in the late 1930s.
On this spring day, he sports an adhesive bandage around the tip of his nose to cover a precancerous growth he had removed. Were he a younger man, one might assume that he had gotten into a fight, as he once did as a teen in Montreal, knocking out an anti-Semitic French Canadian bully with one punch. However, Weider, who immigrated to the United States after World War II, has not gotten into any fights since that scuffle in Montreal.
Weider grew up in an era when many Jews fought for a living, but he did not fight in the prize ring; he fought to keep a business afloat.
“Judaism made me,” he says. “It taught me to be a good boy, respect women, study and apply myself to work.”
Weider and his brother and business partner, Ben, never denied their Judaism, even when Ben was making contacts in Arab countries like Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian territories as part of their effort to promote bodybuilding worldwide.
Over the years, they had to battle fierce competitors within their field, including Bob Hoffman, founder of the York Barbell Company and a U.S. Olympic weightlifting coach, who published magazines for weightlifters and served as head of the Amateur Athletic Union.
Joe Weider, who casually drops in references to Freud’s pleasure principle, also had to battle psychologists, who claimed that weight training “would do you no good.”
Looking resplendent with a full head of silver hair and matching silver moustache, Weider speaks for many young weightlifters when he says that “It made me feel I can change myself,” then he adds, “and change other people.”
Although bodybuilding improved the self-esteem of Weider and his disciples, he says that he had to counter another notion propounded by psychologists at the time — that those who built up their physiques were “latent homosexuals” who liked to stare at their bodies. It seems an odd point to mention and certainly less serious than charges back then that lifting weights would leave one overly muscle-bound, that muscle could turn to fat and, worst of all, that weight-training could result in so-called “athlete’s heart.”
Like former pupil Schwarzenegger, Weider did have surgery for a leaky heart valve, but he says that both were born with the condition.
“Arnold’s mother had it and died from it,” he says.
Weider also says that his back problems were due to a freak accident and had nothing to do with weight training. However, he admits that handling weights improperly can damage the body. He is also well aware of the drug abuses of too many body builders and athletes in other fields, a scourge that has led to severe health concerns, including heart attacks, strokes and cancer.
In “Brothers of Iron,” which is equal parts memoir, business primer and popular culture history, Weider stresses that he and Ben were always opposed to steroids. He writes that, “like much of the world’s evil … steroids … came from the Nazis and the Communists,” a point that resonates when reflecting on the multitude of East German Olympians, both male and female, who cheated their way to gold medals with bloated musculature through the late 1980s. Although the International Olympic Committee banned certain performance-enhancing drugs in 1967, steroids were not added to the list until 1975.
Ironically, many of those Eastern Europeans got their weight-training methodology from Weider, whose publications have been circulating the globe for nearly 70 years.
In 1950, Weider made his famous 10 predictions, some of which ended up being remarkably prescient. None more so than Prediction No. 1, “I predict that civilization will speed up in every phase, and that the stresses and strains on mankind will continue to increase,” and Prediction No. 2, “I predict that the resulting increase in mental and physical illness will force the world to recognize the importance of systematic exercise and physical activities.”
Most satisfying of all, he says, has been Prediction No. 10, “I predict that body building will one day become one of the greatest forces in existence, and that it may be hailed as the activity that actually saved civilization from itself.”
Nahal Haredi: Unorthodox battalion seeks to change Orthodox image
My second childhood
It took eight decades, but at last I know what is meant by “second childhood.”
In my first childhood, my social life consisted of dating attractive young women. This second time around my calendar is just as full but my partners are all doctors.
The world looks different to me now that I have reached 80. It isn’t that I feel any older, it’s just that everyone else appears so much younger. And more distant. And a bit blurry around the edges. And much more difficult to hear. My ears have taken early retirement and last year, out of consideration for my fellow citizens, I gave up driving at night.
I am told that this last one is almost like a rite of passage; if you move to a retirement home to become one of its few available males, your popularity depends on your ability to drive at night. I will report to you further on this when and if the occasion arises.
The world sees me differently as well. What used to be bad taste (sloppy clothing, for example) is now acceptable. People are much more helpful; they see my four-legged cane and pause to open doors. If I should sit in my car for a few minutes trying to figure out the intricacies of cruise control, someone will rap on the window and ask if I am all right. At the supermarket I have been presented with my own key for the electric carts that are not equipped, thank heavens, with the latest gadgets dreamed up in Detroit. Besides, I no longer walk: I shuffle.
There is yet another problem. There are rows of keys on my computer’s keyboard whose meaning I fail to comprehend and icons on its screen whose purpose passeth all understanding. The makers of these gadgets assume that their customers are all graduates of MIT. In 688 pages of “Mac OSX for Dummies” there is not a single definition of the oft-used phrase “default position.” My wife and children, all highly computer literate, have given up trying to explain these matters to me; they use PCs and regard Macs as childish toys suitable only for the technologically challenged.
Despite this litany of whiney self-indulgence there are some advantages to being long in the tooth.
Even though the Iraqi quicksand is gradually swallowing us up, I am not likely to be drafted again for military service. Nor am I personally threatened by global warming, awakened in the morning by an alarm clock, paying for anyone’s college tuition or worrying about the state of my (nonexistent) portfolio.
Three sessions a week of cardiac rehab do much, I am told, for one’s physical well-being and has led to a discovery that will please the Bush administration.
They were expecting to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Well, I found them right here in my home city of Providence, R.I., at Miriam Hospital’s cardiac center.
And my brain, upon which I used to depend for solving The New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, now is exercised by following the antics of Brad, Angelina, Britney, Paris, Nicole and their exes.
I used to imagine that life in the Golden Years would feature an endless series of visits from adoring grandchildren, all yearning to sit at the feet of the Fount of Wisdom so as to benefit from his experiences and profound utterances on issues of great moment. I have since discovered that grandchildren tend to live thousands of miles away and have interests of their own that rarely include the accomplishments of the Yankee teams of the 1930s or the pleasures of riding on the Sixth Avenue El all the way to the Battery. Instead, they chatter on about Game Boys, text messaging and other modern time-wasters, which will, in due course, turn them into members of the genus illiterati.
I know that it will all come to an end in a month or a year or perhaps another decade, but I don’t know how or when. Nor am I particularly anxious to find out. If there is one thing about which we elderly codgers are aware, it is that in becoming elderly we are riding a wave of good fortune.
After all, consider the alternative.
Yehuda Lev, The Journal’s first associate editor, lives in Providence, R.I., where his business card reads Editor Emeritus. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Mud’s a dirty business but entrepreneur digs it
Alter Kayakers make waves in Newport Bay
Every Thursday morning, 11 supremely fit old men come thundering into Newport Bay, rounding up all the good rental kayaks on the Balboa Peninsula and singing at the top of their lungs.
Most are major fundraisers for Heritage Pointe, Orange County’s Home for the Jewish Aging, and they call themselves the Alter Kayakers.
The name was a natural, said Stan Sackler, 70, of Newport Beach, a retired fuel dealer, who was already a member of a Jewish cycling group in Fullerton called Shlemiels on Wheels.
Sackler and Steve Fienberg, 67, of Irvine assembled the group four years ago, and let Howard Weinstein, 72, of Corona del Mar coin the name. They’ve never had a slow moment since.
“I look forward to this all week,” Weinstein said. “I can’t wait for Thursday.”
Not that Weinstein, or any of the other Alter Kayakers, lives in the slow lane the rest of the week.
Weinstein hiked and rode horseback through Patagonia for 18 days last fall. He plays tennis four times a week, works out with a personal trainer twice a week and he’ll have to miss the Alter Kayakers’ February cruise to Mexico because he’ll be in Botswana.
“I figure that if I stay active when I’m 72, I’ll still have a life when I’m 92,” Weinstein said.
The Alter Kayakers stand out for their awesome endurance and robust bearing, and they cram their days with endless bicycling, hiking, tennis, martial arts and river rafting. But no one has to quit when his abilities falter.
Seymour Lobel, 77, a retired auto financier from Corona del Mar, for example, has lost much of his vision. Other members of the Alter Kayakers drive him to Newport Bay each week, and in the water, someone always keeps an eye on his kayak.
Members love to reminisce about their Kern River rafting trip last September, when the raft overturned and all the members were dumped into the churning river’s Class 4 rapids. Stronger members helped stragglers get back onto the raft, and the team spirit that prevailed made even these tough men of steel mist up for a moment.
Two seconds of sober reminiscence passed, and then Weinstein said, “Stan Sackler, wearing a hearing aid, came damn close to getting electrocuted.”
Ephie Beard, 75, a Newport Beach resident of 13 years who owned car auction businesses in Anaheim and Fontana, introduced the Alter Kayakers to whitewater rafting.
“I’d been doing it for 21 years,” he said. But the day the raft flipped, he said, “it was pretty scary for some of those guys.”
But all this running around without performing a few mitzvot is against Alter Kayaker rules.
“We all try to do something for the Jewish community,” said David Stoll, who owns a boat engine business in Newport Beach. “Most of us are Diamond Donors to Heritage Pointe in Mission Viejo. My personal feeling is that you have to pay your Jewish dues. If you don’t pay the community back, it really gets on our nerves.”
Two of the Alter Kayakers aren’t Jewish, but they’re treated like Members of the Tribe. Stan Angermeir, 67, a nursing home operator who lives on Lido Isle, belongs to Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana with his Jewish wife. Wayne Harmon, 69, of Corona del Mar, the other non-Jew in the group, has a serious relationship with a Jewish woman.
“Believe it or not,” joked Stoll, 68, “we made Wayne our treasurer.”
“But we don’t have anything in the treasury,” added Stackler, a former director of the Orange County Jewish Federation.
Every year, the Alter Kayakers hold an awards ceremony.
“Everyone wins first place in something,” Stoll said. “Wayne Harmon won first prize for looking the least Jewish.”
Most of the Alter Kayakers are retired or semiretired professionals or businessmen.
Arthur Friedman, 71, of Balboa was a dermatologist. Sid Field, 77, who lives in Newport Coast, was a dentist. Robert Baker, 64, of Newport Beach and Fienberg were lawyers.
Weinstein was a pharmacist who became a pharmaceutical manufacturer. Harmon was an executive with J.C. Penney. The rest were entrepreneurs.
When they gather, they are sure to sing “Kayakers’ Spirit,” their own anthem, sung to the tune of the “Illini Fight Song.” Field, a University of Illinois alum, wrote the words. The anthem concludes their weekly Thursday ritual, which starts with a 4-mile, one-hour kayak expedition into Newport Bay and progresses to lunch at Newport Landing Restaurant.
“Same seats or we forget the name of the guy next to us,” Sackler explained.
Same menu, too, it turns out: A half portion of Caesar, Cobb or chicken avocado salad. Ironmen feasting on salad fragments?
“Some members are on diets or too cheap to buy a whole salad,” Weinstein said. “One member who shall remain nameless orders a sandwich off the menu, and he is penalized by getting a separate check.”
The Alter Kayakers say they don’t accept new members.
“Our membership is now closed because the group has such good chemistry, and we don’t want to tamper with it,” Fienberg said. “Also, the place we rent kayaks from only has about 11 good kayaks, and more than 11 for lunch is a bit much.”
They also discourage lunch guests.
“You must be mishpachah,” Weinstein said. “You can be a ninth cousin, but you have to be in the family.”
All but one of the Alter Kayakers are married, nearly all to their first wives — Stoll for 42 years, Baker for 41.
“My wife loves it,” Weinstein said. “It gives me an opportunity to socialize with the boys and to go out and exercise.”
There are no greens fees or memberships to eat away at the family budget; it costs $10 to rent a kayak.
So far none of the Alter Kayakers’ wives has taken to renting a kayak of her own.
“My wife came out with me in a tandem in Newport once,” Sackler said, “and loved it as long as I did the paddling.”
Take a stroll down memoir lane with the family
Hitting the century mark doesn’t stop this translator
Most afternoons, you can find Eva Zeitlin Dobkin working. Undaunted by the 100-year marker she passed last month, she pulls her wheelchair up to the hospital bed in the room she shares at the Jewish Home for the Aging — her side is separated by a curtain — and spreads her work out over the lavender bedspread. While her roommate rests or watches television with the volume turned high, Dobkin spends a couple of hours editing “Burning Earth” (“Brenendike Erd” ), a historical novel she has translated from Yiddish to English.
She began working on the book in 1984, then had to put it aside to complete other translation projects.
Now, despite limits to her endurance, she is reviewing her final version for the fifth or sixth time, making corrections in longhand — she gave up the computer two years ago — and occasionally referring to a Yiddish-English dictionary to verify her word choice. The book, by Aaron Zeitlin, who may be a cousin, was written in 1934 and centers on a group of Zionists who spied for the British, prior to the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
This is the fourth or fifth book Dobkin has translated, in addition to innumerable articles, letters and personal memorabilia. Her best-known book is “Profiles of a Lost World: Memoirs of East European Jewish Life before World War II” by Hirsz Abramowicz, published in 1999.
Recently, Dobkin did take one afternoon off to celebrate her birthday — she was born on Nov. 20, 1906. Dressed in black slacks and a black sweater trimmed in white, her gray hair pulled neatly back, she sat in one of the home’s conference rooms at the head of a large table. Her son, Jack Forem, flanked her on one side, her youngest sister, Hannah Doberne, on the other. A cake, frosted in chocolate with brightly colored flowers, was set before her, as well as two balloon bouquets.
Friends joined her at the table. A second group, in chairs and wheelchairs, formed an outer circle. They clapped and occasionally sang along to “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein” (“To Me You Are Beautiful”), “Di Grine Kuzine” (“The Greenhorn Cousin”) and other Yiddish songs played by a pianist and violist. Staff members, most in red uniform smocks, clapped along.
“I regret that when you’re 100, I probably won’t be able to come to your simcha,” Dobkin, told her guests, including about 25 fellow residents at the Eisenberg campus, where she’s lived two years and is known as Eva Forem.
It was her day to shine, though, with 19 residents currently ranging in age from 100 to 108, centenarians are surprisingly common at the Jewish Home. Dobkin, however, is among the lucky ones, in that she is well and alert enough to be able to keep working.
Dobkin doesn’t play bingo, and she doesn’t own a television. She occasionally attends a lecture or musical event, but generally, when she isn’t working, she is reading, usually The Forward in Yiddish or English or The Jewish Journal. She reads without glasses, except for very small print.
She also spends about 45 minutes each afternoon discussing her work by telephone with her son, 62, who is a writer and lives in Yucca Valley, and who has been collaborating with her on the book’s final stages. Dobkin is hoping to find a publisher for it.
She has been translating Yiddish since 1932, when she was hired by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at $15 a week to work as a Yiddish and English typist. By the end of the first week, however, she was writing stories in Yiddish and English off the cable transmissions, eventually working her way up to $35. However, she left after two or three years to study for her teaching credential.
In 1936, she married Leon Forem, and in 1946 her son was born. She separated from her husband five months afterward and moved to Los Angeles in 1957, supporting herself by teaching public school from 1957 to 1972, mostly at Pacoima’s Telfair Avenue Elementary School.
Born in Waterbury, Conn., to parents who had just emigrated from Russia’s Mohilev Province, now Belarus, she was the oldest of seven children, and her youngest sister, 85, is her only surviving sibling. She grew up bilingual in Yiddish and English, and at age 3 she was taught by her father to write her name in Yiddish.
“There were Jewish periodicals coming into the house, and I would look at them whether I understood them or not,” she said.
Dobkin attended public school in Waterbury and later, after moving at age 16, in the Bronx. She also received a Jewish secular education, taught primarily in Yiddish, and considers herself not religious but “very Jewish.”
She often had to care for her younger siblings while her parents worked but nevertheless managed to acquire an A.B. in German, with a minor in English and education from Hunter College, as well as a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. The family was poor.
“We had nothing. Sometimes we didn’t have a quarter to put in the gas meter,” she said.
She attributes her success, and that of her siblings, to her parents’ emphasis on education and the availability of free schooling. Her longevity, she believes, is due to genetics.
“Pick the right parents and grandparents,” she advised, wryly. She won’t commit to a future translating project but is considering writing a family history.
“Have a few more birthdays,” her son said as the party wound down.
“I wouldn’t mind,” Dobkin retorted, “if they’re not any worse than this one.”
For more information, call (310) 456-2178
Tale of heroics, terror from the top of the world
Jewish Home’s makeover: yoga at 3, facials at 4
After strolling down the hall from your room for breakfast, you duck into the art studio to work on your latest ceramics project. Then you head down to the club room for a yoga class.
You have lunch, then sit in a shaded outdoor courtyard, listening to the sound of a nearby fountain and chatting with a friend. The two of you step into the salon for facials and hair styling before heading to the dining room, where you select from a choice of dinner entrees.
Oh, and by the way, you’re 84-years-old and you live in a skilled-nursing facility.
While this may not sound like life in a nursing home, it could be a typical day at the Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer Medical Center, which will be dedicated Oct. 29 as the newest facility at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda. The $58.5 million, 249-bed center, the largest building in the home’s nearly 100-year history, is designed to provide emotional and spiritual, as well as physical, well-being to its residents.
“There are few, if any, skilled-nursing facilities that truly foster healthy living,” said Jewish Home for the Aging President and CEO Molly Forrest. “We firmly believe in investing in healthy living programs and facilities that reinforce life and are focused on quality living each day.”
Located at the corner of Tampa Avenue and Sherman Way, at the home’s Grancell Village Campus, the center includes three interconnected buildings. Two of them — the Hazan Pavilion and the LaKretz-Black Tower — are residential structures, while the Brandman Research Institute houses an in-patient acute psychiatric-care unit, research offices, a computer center/library, art studio and fitness room.
The center’s new acute in-patient psychiatric-care unit was especially needed given the psychological issues faced by many seniors, Forrest said. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, people older than 65 have the highest rates of suicide of any age group, and men account for 84 percent of those suicides. Forrest notes that many of the Home’s residents, whose average age is 84, have outlived spouses, siblings, friends and sometimes their children. In addition, more than 50 of the home’s residents are Holocaust survivors, who often have particular psychological issues.
The Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer Medical Center will provide a new home for 114 of the 350 individuals currently on the home’s waiting list for skilled-nursing care. In addition, 125 residents currently living in an outmoded, 50-year-old building at the Home’s nearby Eisenberg Village Campus will be transferred to the new facility. The remaining 10 beds are in the psychiatric unit.
Featuring small, intimate settings, each of the building’s five floors are divided into three donor-designated “neighborhoods” (among them, for example, Boyle Heights and Chicago) each delineated by its own color scheme and artwork. Each floor has three dining rooms — the main dining room, a smaller room for those who cannot feed themselves, and a medium-size “transitional” one for residents who are relearning feeding skills — and a family visiting room.
In addition, the floors are equipped with their own computer room/library, with a reading area, cable television, computer and phone for communal use. A “club room” on every floor offers fitness classes such as Tai Chi and stretching, while the creative studio, staffed 12 hours daily, enables residents to engage in painting, woodworking and other crafts.
“We want to give residents the opportunity to improve their lives and build on their skills,” Forrest said.
With decor more suggestive of a hotel than a skilled-nursing facility, carpeting takes the place of linoleum in hallways and resident rooms. Birch bookcases and armoires grace the interior of each room, while outside a mounted “memory box” displays personal photos and memorabilia.
Residents, visitors and staff can also patronize Gerald’s Deli, a pareve eatery featuring soups and sandwiches. And then there’s Maxi’s, a salon offering hair cutting, coloring and styling, makeup, facials, waxing and shaves.
Forrest said that the new facilities also will enable the home to hold more community programs. Brawerman Terrace, located on the roof, will be the site of future holiday gatherings, garden parties and other events, while the computer center will host classes open to the public.
The Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer Medical Center is the second major project of a $72 million campaign launched in 1999 to build new facilities and upgrade existing ones. The first project was the Goldenberg-Ziman Special Care Center for patients with dementia, which was dedicated in 2002. Next year, the home plans to begin construction of Fountainview at Eisenberg Village, a 108-unit, upscale independent-living facility. Plans also call for establishing a facility on the Westside, and potential locations are currently being considered.
Ikea Doll Bat Mitzvah video
Sex at the Skirball
When sexy authors like Erica Jong and Jerry Stahl get together onstage, you expect fireworks. But when I drag my friend Kay up to Skirball for the Writers Bloc conversation, the room is too bright, and Kay tells me Jong’s blue-framed eyeglasses and gold necklace make her come off more Carol Channing than “sex goddess.”
“Sex goddess” is how Writers Bloc founder Andrea Grossman introduces Jong, known for her 1973 literary sensation, “Fear of Flying.” Now 64, Jong has a new memoir, “Seducing the Demon,” which seduced most of the middle-aged women into coming tonight.
“Of course that’s why I’m here,” says a woman in a Princess Cruises pumpkin-colored pantsuit. “Her book had such a big effect.”
“I wanted to see what she’s up to now,” adds the female half of a baby boomer couple sitting near us.
Two hipsters in berets and leather (Stahl fans?) complete the scene in the Skirball’s Haas room.
Stahl wrote his own 1999 sexual memoir, “Perv — A Love Story,” and his first book, 1995’s “Permanent Midnight,” a memoir about his time as a drug-addicted TV writer, became a Ben Stiller movie. Kay finds heroin a tired literary cliché. But at the first mention of “sex” she perks up as a bent smile lifts one side of Stahl’s mouth.
And we’re off!
But instead of gland-to-gland combat, what we’re witnessing is an intimate exchange — sex talk in the salon. Jong, called by Grossman “a lightning rod for the last 30 years,” comes off strong in front of a crowd. Stahl plays it self-deprecatory. The one-time creator of Penthouse Letters mixes the right combination of dirty talk and fawning to coax Jong into going for the water bottle. In her newest confessional, Jong writes about sleeping with Martha Stewart’s husband. Stahl quips that he did the same with Stewart’s husband.
“Martha’s a sister,” Kay whispers. “Erica shouldn’t go around bad-mouthing her.”
But she digs the quick, black-clad Stahl. He generously lets Jong bang her political gong to make points against fundamentalist anti-Semites and fixed elections. And when she mentions Justice Sandra Day O’Connor “worried about a drift toward fascism,” Stahl says he slept with her, too.
“How was she?” Jong asks.
“Brittle,” Stahl replies. “But rightward leaning.”
He teases Jong into enticing us with a tale from “Seducing the Demon,” about a British poet (her demon muse) whom she resisted with a sudden revelation: “I can’t [sleep with] this guy … he’s an anti-Semite!”(Didn’t Larry David do something similar on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”?)
Then, in keeping with a Skirball tradition, someone in the audience shouts out: “Can’t hear you!”
“Sorry,” Stahl says. “We’re all getting old. Some go deaf. I just speak quietly.”
This segues into what we came for: Jong taking on taboos.
Her next book? A study of her father’s death. She says death and aging are taboo because we’re in denial. But being 64 offers a unique perspective.
“Death starts taking everyone around you,” Jong says. And at the same time, “your kids in their 20s become very needy. So here you are in between these two generations.”
Sounds like a whole new area for her “to blow open,” Stahl prods.
“We all end up a heap of chemicals and a black spot on the ground,” Jong says. “Within a year there’s nothing there except the words you left behind.”
Aging and death. How the baby boomers have turned! Luckily, these two discuss elderly sex.
People with Alzheimer’s make love, Stahl says, “like there’s no tomorrow.”
Jong describes nursing homes where bed hopping has become de rigueur.
“I’m thinking about investing in designer diapers,” says Stahl, drawing laughs. “Seriously.”
Wham bam, pass the Depends? By the time the gal in the orange pantsuit asks about Jackie Collins, Kay has heard enough.
“How about an interview with the Skirball landscape artist?” she says. “That’s impressive work.”
Hank Rosenfeld just helped Irv Brecher compete his memoir on aging and sex and Groucho Marx, called “Go for the Jocular!”
Hip Cynics for Export
Center’s Studies Aid Care for Frail Elderly
Rose Sino sits in her wheelchair as lunch is placed before her. Her son offers her a forkful of cheese blintz, which Sino quickly chews before accepting another bite.
While this scene might appear routine, its significance is not lost on her son, David Swartz, or her caregivers at the Jewish Home for the Aging of Greater Los Angeles (JHA). Sino, 88, is a resident of JHA’s Goldenberg-Ziman Special Care Center, a facility that serves elderly residents with dementia. Five years ago, Sino lost all interest in eating and required a feeding tube to get sufficient nutrition.
For Sino and many other frail, elderly nursing home residents, lack of appetite is a common problem, one which can lead to a rapid decline in health, said Dr. John Schnelle, director of the Anna and Harry Borun Center for Gerontological Research.
Weight-loss prevention is one of the principal areas of investigation at the Borun Center, a joint venture between JHA and UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. Housed on the JHA campus in Reseda, the center was established in 1989 to identify and test nonmedical measures that could improve daily care and quality of life for nursing home residents. Given that the number of people 85 years or older is expected to almost double in 25 years, the center’s research is of growing interest to the government, private industry and the public.
While the Borun Center utilizes JHA to test and pilot numerous interventions, it also conducts research at facilities throughout the country. In addition to preventing weight loss, current projects focus on preventing mobility decline, detecting pain, preventing pressure ulcers and managing incontinence.
The center has used research findings to develop protocols, available on its Web site, for use by nursing homes. The strategies focus on everyday routines, rather than on medical interventions.
“Once a person is frail enough to enter a long-term care facility, they’re usually taking five to six medications,” Schnelle said. “They are less inclined to do surgical or pharmacological interventions. What they want is for their pain to be managed and their incontinence taken care of and for staff to treat them in a reasonable way.”
The Borun Center is currently working with the federal government’s Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to improve methods of evaluating nursing home care. Current methods don’t always provide the most reliable information, according to Schnelle. Not only are the elderly less likely to complain, he said, but the phrasing of questions can influence their responses.
“Asking, ‘Are you satisfied with how often you are taken to the bathroom?’ will typically generate a yes response, even if that is not the case,” he explained. “Asking, ‘How many times would you like to be helped to go to the bathroom?’ and ‘How many times are you taken to the bathroom?’ is more likely to reveal the discrepancy between what residents want and what they get,” he noted.
Schnelle said that most nursing homes are understaffed and that in the typical facility, residents are taken to the bathroom only once a day. (He also said that, in all measures the center looks at, JHA exceeded all other facilities studied.)
The Borun Center’s nutrition and weight-loss study at JHA identifies strategies to prevent the decrease in eating and fluid intake common to nursing home residents. Schnelle cited depression and appetite change as two principal causes.
“Food doesn’t taste as good, and they simply don’t care as much about it as they once did…. But you can reverse the decline if meal time becomes social.”
Sino’s improved eating came about not because of a change in her food, but in how it was presented and served. Using Borun Center study results, JHA’s Special Care Center systematically incorporated eight measures — including greeting residents by name and providing verbal encouragement — which had been shown to boost caloric intake among certain residents by about 300 calories a day.
“At some facilities, a food tray is placed in front of the resident, and that’s it,” said Susan Leitch, community manager for the Goldenberg-Ziman Building.
In her facility, servers take plates off the serving tray and place them, restaurant style, before the residents. Containers are opened and meat is cut for those who require assistance. Residents are greeted by name and offered substitutions for foods they dislike.
Nursing aides and other staff sit with residents or stop by their tables with encouragement. “Try this. This is good,” one says. “I know you like chocolate,” says another as she presents a bowl of ice cream to a resident.
In addition, snacks are incorporated into activities as a way to boost caloric intake, and family members are encouraged to bring treats that they know their relative enjoys. Sino, for example, ate the pieces of chocolate her son offered her, even when she was still using the feeding tube. He credits the chocolate with renewing her interest in eating.
Not surprisingly, the interventions identified by the Borun Center require greater staff time. That means higher costs.
Molly Forrest, JHA’s CEO, acknowledged that those costs present a challenge. Approximately 80 percent of JHA residents are on Medi-Cal, and the reimbursement received does not cover the expenses incurred.
“Quality is a costly item,” Forrest said. “The needs are so great, and those needs can only be met by the hands of a caregiver.”
Schnelle suspects these interventions also prevent hospitalization and prolong life. But even if they did not improve clinical outcomes, he believes improving quality of life for the frail elderly is justified from a moral point of view.
“I think we have to be very clear about the staffing requirements needed to provide good care and let people make choices,” he said.
For David Swartz, the choice is clear. Sitting with his mother at lunchtime, he beams. By the time she’s done, only one tiny bite of blintz remains on her plate.
For more information, visit www.borun.medsch.ucla.edu.
I Love You, Carnivore
Ways to Care for a Parent Who Didn’t
Some 10 million older Americans need some kind of assistance to get through every day. Family members (mostly grown children) provide about 80 percent of that help. Lots of those adult children welcome the opportunity to give back to their parents a portion of the love and care they received as a child.
But what happens when an abusive or absent parent, now well along in years, turns to his or her adult child for help? How in the world do you care for an elderly mother or father who showed you no love, compassion or understanding when you were young?
A sense of moral obligation and love motivate many people to take care of such neglectful parents, but no law says that you must provide financial, emotional or physical assistance to a parent. Whatever you choose to do, it’s wise to be clear about expectations.
Providing care in the hopes of finally getting a parent’s approval or love may be a set-up for disappointment.
If you find yourself in this predicament, it’s more useful to attempt to understand the roots of your resentment, heal your old hurts and move toward forgiveness and acceptance.
Because angry feelings are far less painful than hurt feelings, many of us turn childhood disappointment, rejection, abandonment, humiliation, betrayal and abuse into angry resentment. Figuring out exactly what it was that hurt you so much when you were a child is the first step in letting go of the anger that stands between you and your elderly parent.
If you can answer “yes” to any of the following questions, your resentment and anger are providing a “reward” you can do without:
• Do I believe that by staying angry I am maintaining my principals and standards (thus not condoning what my parent did or did not do in the past)?
• Do I think that I must receive amends (apologies, special considerations) to compensate for the wrong I suffered and to stop feeling resentful?
• Does holding on to my resentment make me feel morally superior to my parent?
• Do I think I will be free of anger when my parent shows guilt?
• Do I think that anger is my only way to punish him or her?
• Do I believe that “letting go” of my anger means I am weak?
Admitting to yourself why you are holding on to resentment is courageous. It is also good for your health and the health of your other relationships.
A heart-to-heart talk with your elderly parent may lead to new understanding for both of you. Or perhaps it will help you finally realize that nothing will change, no matter what you do. The following are some guidelines for your attempts at finishing unfinished business and letting go of anger:
• Approach your parent with the understanding that you don’t know everything, and your elder probably had very limited power to do better at the time.
• Voice your hurt instead of your anger. It may feel safer to express anger instead of hurt, but anger is usually met with a heated, defensive response.
• Once you show your tender spots, you become more vulnerable. So make it short.
• Don’t expect a sea change. Rejoice in the smallest acknowledgement of wrongdoing, even if it’s only half-hearted.
• Acknowledge that the two of you will forever disagree on certain issues.
• Don’t regret that you didn’t or couldn’t express exactly what you wanted.
Anticipating or hoping that your older person will react to you positively will throw up a barrier to the good feeling you’re longing for. Approach your elder with a positive upbeat attitude — but don’t expect him or her to respond in the same way. Suspend your current viewpoints about your elder. No doubt your elder has had heartbreak, trauma and disappointment, too.
Try to insert yourself into your parent’s experience, imagining what he or she felt, feared or thought in the past. Being able to do this, even a little bit, helps increase empathy. Every situation is different, but empathy (the ability to appreciate another person’s suffering) is one doozy of a place to start. Whether it works is less important than the fact that you tried. The healing process begins when you make the attempt.
Repairing the deep-seated hurts and anger between an elderly parent and grown child can occur as the end of life approaches, but it doesn’t always happen. On the brighter side, the experience of forgiving a parent — and expressing long-buried questions and feelings — may be one of the most satisfying experiences of your life.
Letting go of years of anger and underlying hurt takes time. The following steps can help speed the process:
• Share your feelings with a support group. You’ll likely be surprised that others have similar experiences.
• See a professional counselor.
• Share your thoughts with someone you know is understanding and a good listener.
• Seek religious guidance.
• Try to understand what shaped your parent to behave as he or she did. Inviting the opinions and viewpoints of others can give you a fresh perspective.
• And finally, don’t expect anything to change. Just hope for it.
Should the words “forgive me” or “I’m proud of you” not come as you hoped, you can say to yourself and your parent, “I regret that we have had our problems.”
It’s true and it’s tender, and most of all, it’s nonblaming — a fact that may open up possibilities in the days to come.
Dr. Rachelle Zukerman, a Fulbright scholar and gerontologist, is the author of the 2003 book, “Eldercare for Dummies.”
Few Females Filling Mohel Role in U.S.
Wisdom of the Ages
Ten years ago, when my parents, z”l, were 82 and 89, they traveled from Chicago to Los Angeles to be with my partner Tracy and me as we stood together under the chuppah. At the celebration of her daughter’s lesbian wedding, my mother was heard to say quite matter-of-factly: “I guess if you live long enough, you see everything.”
Amazingly, two-thirds of all the people who have ever lived past the age of 65 in the history of the world are alive today, according to Ken Dychtwald, author of “The Power Years: A User’s Guide to the Rest of Your Life.” This suggests that our way-beyond octogenarians in the Bible were the exception, not the rule.
The Bible gives skeptics many things to be skeptical about, but perhaps nothing so much as a verse in this week’s Torah portion: “Moses was 80 years old and Aaron 83 when they made their demand on Pharaoh” (Exodus 7:7).
Why would God call on octogenarians to lead the Israelites out from slavery and through 40 years in the wilderness? No wonder Moses was reticent, say the doubters (not a few of whom are octogenarians themselves, and know how it feels).
If the Torah mentioned Moses and Aaron’s advanced ages because here was yet another one of God’s miracles in redeeming us from slavery, then I’m beginning to think we’ve entered another age of miracles. For I have not only my parents (who lived to see, and even enjoy, ages 91 and 88), I also count myself blessed to have in my life a significant number of remarkable elders.
Last month at our synagogue, we heard a marvelous sermon from one of our oldest members, Harriet Perl, on the occasion of her 85th birthday. Her speech prompted us to embark on an oral history project at our synagogue (our recent newsletter profiled three of our elders, and includes Harriet’s speech). Last weekend I went to Chicago to visit four relatives and friends I’ve known all my life — ages 82, 89, 95, 96. They move more slowly than they used to, but give few other clues about their age.
In fact, surprisingly few commentators take note of the simple statement of Moses and Aaron’s ages in Parshat Vaera. But it should call out to us, reminding us that Moses is not the young man portrayed in the still-popular animated movie “The Prince of Egypt.” Maybe the filmmakers’ choice tells us something we need to know: God chose octogenarians to bring us out from slavery, while modern interpreters keep us enslaved to our worship of youth.
Fifty generations before ours, the Mishnah’s collection of wisdom known as Pirke Avot provides a list of attributes that come to each human being with each new decade. Ben shmonim ligvurah (80 years is the age of greatness and strength). Surely Yehudah ben Tema, the sage who said this, knew how old Moses was when God called him to lead.
These days, life expectancies are on the rise, or perhaps just returning to biblical proportions. At the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy was only 47 years, casting a different light on the 1880s choice to make 65 the “definition” of old age. Today “the United States’ Jewish community is disproportionately elderly. Close to 20 percent of Jews are already over the age of 65, compared to less than 13 percent of the general population. A significant number are over the age of 85 and need help with activities of daily living like eating, dressing and walking,” according to The Jewish Federation’s Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities project.
Perhaps our Torah verse this week about the ages of Moses and Aaron is overshadowed by the more well-known verse at Torah’s end about the death of Moses, 40 years later, at age 120, in which we are told: “his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated” (Deuteronomy 34:7). That one echoes God’s decision in Genesis 6:3 to cut back on the centuries-long human life spans mentioned there (remember Methuselah?), and leads us to the popular Jewish birthday wish ad meah v’esrim (until 120). Tradition says that in wishing for this impossibility, we are simply saying that no matter at what age someone dies, they died too young.
I don’t always offer that wish; I have seen people who have lived too long, and I’m not na?ve or removed from some of the traumas that come with aging. But more and more we are all also seeing some incredible septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians.
And since we’re talking about time, isn’t it time we stop making assumptions about elders based on “old” prejudices? Instead — as God did so long ago in calling two octogenarians to lead us to freedom — isn’t it time to appreciate the wisdom, the strength, the humor, the experience of people who have “lived long enough to see everything”? They are here to be seen and heard and known in our families, in our congregations, in our Jewish community, in our city, in our world. And all of us gain gevurah and countless blessings from their presence in our lives.
Lisa A. Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, and is also currently teaching Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Moses and King
Problems Abound in Pampering Parents
My mother and father are both in diapers. I wasn't at all prepared for this possibility. Dealing with the visual and olfactory aspect of my son's end products when he was a baby was an expected part of being a mom, but it's a completely different matter when it's my parents wearing the Pampers.
My mother was first. A few years ago, she was on a medication for dementia that instead of keeping her memory, loosened her bowels. Both my sister and I had the traumatic experience of being out in public with mom, hearing her gasp, rushing with her to the nearest restroom and then trying to figure out what to do.
It was demoralizing for my mother and very distressing for my sister and me. We learned to carry extra clothes and diaper wipes with us.
Fortunately, my sister and I both have rather sick senses of humor, and we could later laugh (albeit slightly hysterically) when sharing these nightmares with each other. My mother could even laugh about it, but it was colored by obvious pain about her aging and loss of control.
My mother is no longer on that medication and blissfully unaware (because of her dementia) of the fact that she wears diapers. Well, in fact, she actually does notice it, but forgets a few minutes later.
Mom lives in a board and care where, thankfully, someone other than me gets to handle her potty needs. I'm adjusting to the fact that my mother is old and child-like in many ways.
My 86-year-old father is still functioning fine mentally. He's still counseling clients and writing a book about handling fears. He's funny and together and basically still “my dad.”
But two years ago, a stroke left dad partially paralyzed on his right side. A fiercely independent man, this was a real blow to his pride and his view of himself. (The good news is that it forced him to stop driving, something we'd desperately wanted for years.)
After the stroke, dad was a prize student for the occupational and physical therapists, and he can now dress and feed himself, walk with a cane and even slowly type on his computer. He desperately wants to do everything for himself.
But the stroke left him with occasional loss of bowel control, and prostate problems have caused him incontinence. He wears pull-ups.
Dad hates it, and he is terribly frustrated and angry when he has an accident. I went to visit him in Ohio last August, and there was no doubt when an accident would occur, because dad announced it loudly, like a wounded or trapped animal. It was clearly horrible for him to be so powerless.
Much to my dismay, (yes, I confess, I was not thrilled) he often needed help with the clean up after such an accident. He would make his way into the bathroom, close the door, deal with the situation by himself and then he'd shout my name.
The first time I heard him yell, it sounded like panic, and I thought he'd hurt himself. I flew from the living room and threw open the bathroom door.
There he was, sitting on the thrown, his Depends around his ankles. My first thought was, “Oh good, he's OK.”
Then I felt irritated that I was being called to witness him in that state. Then came a childhood memory: dad, sitting on the can, his pants around his ankles, reading the entire Sunday Cleveland Plain Dealer, while my sister and I impatiently asked him when he was going to be done.
But this was different. We are now adults, and I haven't seen my father's rear end for about 48 years. Worse than that, he was ashamed and embarrassed at having to ask for help.
The circumstances during that visit brought up a lot of intense feelings about aging (both his and mine) and about mortality (both his and mine). And there was a deep sense of loss of the father I used to have — really until just a few years ago — who was vibrant, active and independent. We were both grieving.
One morning during my visit, I woke up with a full bladder and headed to the aforementioned one-and-only bathroom. The door was closed.
“Dad, are you in there?” (duh.)
“Hey, good morning sweetie. Don't worry, I won't be long!”
An hour later, he was still in there. Need I say, I was really uncomfortable. I looked in the garage for a pot of some sort. No luck.
Then I thought about squatting in the backyard, but there aren't fences between homes in this small Ohio town. So, I did what any desperate, agile person with a full bladder would do — I used the kitchen sink.
My father was still in the bathroom, so I called my sister. I described the entire scene, and we both had one of our “this-is-terrible-but-we-have-to-do-it-so-let's-find-it-amusing” giggles, which helped.
I have to admit that those first three days with my dad seemed like a month. I felt guilty that I couldn't wait to leave. For most of my life, I had my father on a pedestal.
He could fix anything — including personal problems. He skied and played tennis into his late 70s. He always had words of wisdom when I was in a crisis. He's still a sharp, vibrant man.
But since his stroke, it seems like he's shrinking in many ways. His ability to think of things beyond his physical challenges has diminished, which means a decrease in our usual stimulating, fun interactions.
However, after a few days, dad regained control of his bodily functions, and we did have a final day to talk before I returned to Los Angeles.
As often happens with people facing their later years, dad went back in time. He reminisced about his grandparents and his parents. He cried as he talked about how much his mother and father gave to others and how he admired them.
He recalled what a mensch his oldest brother was and what a bully his other brother was. He confessed to skinny-dipping with my mother before they were married. (Something I wish I'd known when she made such a big deal about me necking in the car with my high school boyfriend.)
Then dad switched to my childhood, laughing as he recalled me (at 3 years old) telling the towering 6-foot, 4-inch gentleman next door that it wasn't “nice to spit.” He also enjoyed reminiscing about the time he bought my sister boxing gloves so that she could hit me when I picked on her. Our shared laughter felt wonderful.
My father's hearing aids weren't working, which meant that most of our two-hour conversation that day involved him loudly saying, “What?” and me shouting my responses at him. I was exhausted and hoarse by the time he informed me — loud enough for the neighbors to hear — that he had to go to the bathroom.
And it was fine.
Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer, oral historian and owner of Living Legacies Family Histories. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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