What is wise aging? It starts with staying engaged — And sometimes it takes a village


One of my favorite biblical verses is Psalm 118:5, “Min ha metzar Karati Ya; Anani b’merchav ya — From the narrow place I call out to God, who answered me with the Divine Expanse.” It’s a verse that speaks to me especially now, at this stage of my life.

The narrow place: Those birthday cards that suggest anyone over 50 is over the hill. The ones that start coming when you turn 60: “Think of it this way: You’re not losing it, you are just not using it as often.” Or the ones this year, age 67: “There are three ages of a person: youth, middle age and ‘You look good!’ ”

The narrow place: What am I? What words do I use to describe myself? Retired? Yes, but I still am engaged in projects that matter to me. Senior? Well, I do like that movies and the Metro are less expensive, but I don’t like the word. Elder? Sounds too old or too pretentious.

The narrow place: Ageism, stereotyping and discrimination on the basis of a person’s age — the last socially sanctioned prejudice. The way you become invisible as you grow old; the fear of becoming isolated or dependent.

The narrow place: Internalizing popular stereotypes — that wrinkles are ugly, that it is sad to be old, that old people are incompetent.

The narrow place: Denial. Not being willing to admit that we deserve or need help in certain situations. Not facing the truth that we will die someday, like Woody Allen, who said: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”

Yes, there is a narrow place. But we don’t have to stay there. The challenge is to transform this paradigm of decline into one of possibility and opportunity. I can tell myself that 60 is the new 40, or that 70 is the new 50, that I’m really not growing older. But the truth is I’m 67. And 67 is the new 67.

The challenge is to reimagine the narrow place as one of Divine expanse, an invitation to growth. The word our tradition uses for this stage is “zaken,” the same word as “beard,” “elder,” “sage” or “old.” I prefer the interpretation that views zaken as an acronym for “One who has acquired wisdom.”

So that is the challenge at this stage of my life. It begins with admitting there is less time ahead than behind me. How do I make meaning out of however much time I have left? How do I discover purpose in the years to come?

Confronting that question is the concept behind wise aging.

Focusing on what wise aging means began at my congregation, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, after a community organizing effort several years ago when we talked with more than 250 congregants over the age of 55 in small house meetings about what matters to them at this stage of their lives. Four themes emerged: spirituality, community, giving back and concerns about people they loved, particularly end-of-life issues. Three fears emerged: being isolated; becoming invisible and becoming dependent.

Spirituality includes asking what I need to do now to become the person I want to be in my 80s. And who are the people who can be my teachers, the over-age-80 congregants who are engaged in the world, joyful, grateful, compassionate, patient, funny, curious, optimistic? I see them and I think of the scene in “When Harry Met Sally” when Estelle Reiner says, “I’ll have what she’s having.” I want them to teach me how to have what they are having, and how to work on myself now to cultivate those characteristics.

Spirituality opens me to move from the narrow place to notice those moments when we touch the Divine expansiveness — moments of transition. These could be important birthdays, becoming grandparents or taking on a new challenge. That openness leads me to ask what are the new rituals we need to create to mark those transitions.

We learned more about how to explore such issues together by bringing in the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s training program for “Wise Aging” and its creators, Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Linda Thal. But that was just the beginning.

Our focus on community blossomed into the creation of ChaiVillageLA, which just celebrated its first anniversary. It turns out that the majority of our baby boomer congregants want to age in place, remaining in their homes and neighborhoods, enriched by a supportive community.

Research led us to the village movement, which began 15 years ago in Boston when neighbors got together to figure out how they could age in the homes they loved. Now there are more than 200 such villages around the country and 200 more in formation. A national movement called Village to Village Network (vtvnetwork.org) holds an annual conference and has best practices and software tools to make organizing a village more viable.

We thought people would join because they would want to get or give services. But just as the AARP suggested, we discovered instead that people really want social connections — that those are the antidote to the fears of becoming invisible and isolated.

A village is a membership-driven, self-governing, grass-roots “virtual” community. It is a not a contiguous neighborhood or a social service agency, but the embodiment of the radical old idea of neighbors helping neighbors through services like walking the dog when someone is out of town, bringing meals when someone is sick or providing transportation to medical appointments.

As important as these services are, however, many villages are finding that social programs are even more valuable in helping members continue to build “social capital.” Research by AARP has shown that village members experience reduced isolation, increased independence and a deeper sense of purpose. We thought: What a good idea for a synagogue!

Supported by a generous Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, we joined with Temple Isaiah to found ChaiVillageLA, the only synagogue-based village in the country. Members, who must be members of one of the partner synagogues, pay a membership fee of $100 for an individual or $150 for a household and commit to providing at least four hours a month of service to the community. That service can be responding to the needs of another member or organizing a program, like a backyard gardening group or volunteering at one of the synagogues. People access the services via our website (chaivillagela.org) or our director, Devorah Servi.

We thought people would join because they would want to get or give services. But just as the AARP suggested, we discovered instead that people really want social connections — that those are the antidote to the fears of becoming invisible and isolated. Since launching last July, our membership has grown to almost 200 members and has inspired more than 21 member-run interest groups, 185 member-led events and a handful of major events like the village seder attended by more than 100 people.

The village has been a huge win for our synagogues. People are joining the synagogue in order to become members of the village. Young people from the synagogue are beginning to volunteer with village members. And we are strengthening our synagogues by re-engaging boomers and those slightly beyond — people with skills, energy, experience, wisdom, resources and discretionary time that will make a difference.

It is a work in progress; we have lots still to figure out after our first year. As we celebrated the occasion, our keynote speaker, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer (whose mother is a member), asked what the traditional gift is for a first anniversary. It’s paper, a tradition that goes back to the Victorian Era, in the 19th century.

No one knows why it’s paper, but there are many theories. One is that paper represents a blank page, and that the first year is the beginning of the writing of a future together. A second is that paper reminds us of the fragility of starting something new. A third is that paper, while fragile, is actually created by weaving fibers tightly together, so that what results is interwoven and strong. A fourth is that paper — which can be made from trees, bamboo, cotton or plants — connects us with life and growth.

All this is true of our village. Our recent anniversary is the beginning of the future we are writing together. We are making it up as we go along, trying new ideas, taking risks, finding ways to give one another joy. But like paper, we have become an increasingly interconnected community, weaving individual fibers together, making a difference in individual lives now, and eventually, we hope, in the larger fabric of our neighborhoods and cities.

Although we don’t want to be dependent, we know that none of us is, or ever was, independent.  We are interdependent.

Although we don’t want to be dependent, we know that none of us is, or ever was, independent.  We are interdependent. And we are no longer afraid of becoming invisible or isolated. All of this is part of wise aging.

So is dealing with the concerns we have about the truth that we will die someday, as will the people we love. The best gift we can give to our families is a clear understanding of what kind of care we want at the end of our lives.

Temple Emanuel and other congregations in Los Angeles, led by IKAR, want to facilitate these difficult conversations, sacred conversations, by holding a series of Death Over Dinner gatherings. Based on a secular project — and infused with Jewish sources and wisdom by IKAR (deathoverdinner-jewishedition.org) — congregants will be invited to host such a dinner with a small group of friends or family for a conversation about end-of-life issues. We have held several practice dinners over the summer and are ready to kick off the project in the fall.

Then there is another of the four themes identified in the meetings of our congregants: Giving back. I’m reminded here of psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s vision of generativity, the impulse of older generations to invest in younger ones. We are working with Encore.org, a national movement, to encourage those in midlife to imagine an encore career of service to the larger community, to create connections between older people and younger people through its visionary program called Generation to Generation (generationtogeneration.org/communities/la). It is a five-year campaign “to mobilize a million adults age 50-plus to dedicate their time, talent and experience to help young people thrive, and to unite all generations to create a better future.” Research suggests that more than 30 million people — 29 percent of adults age 50 and older — have indicated interest in the campaign. Imagine the difference that could make in our country. 

And giving back includes not just leaving a legacy — through our philanthropy and through the tradition of writing an ethical will or making a video for those generations who will come after us — but also, and even more important, by living our legacy through a commitment to continue to lead a life of purpose and meaning.

So, after considering all this, I ask again: What is wise aging? It is summed up in another biblical verse I love, this one from Psalm 92, A Psalm for Shabbat: “The righteous will blossom like a date palm, still fruitful in old age, full of sap and freshness.”

Still fruitful. Still juicy. Still curious. Still adventurous. Still grateful. Still engaged in the world.

That is what I would call wise aging. I also would call it wise living, at any stage of life.


RABBI LAURA GELLER is the emerita rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. She and her husband, Richard Siegel, are working on a book called “Getting Good at Getting Older: A Jewish Catalog for a New Age,” to be published by Behrman House in 2018.

Rocky Morton during a training exercise for the Malibu Search & Rescue team. Photo courtesy of Rocky Morton

Bubbe Rocky Morton found renewed purpose with the Malibu search & rescue team


In many ways, Roxanna “Rocky” Morton is much like other 60-something Jewish women. The Thousand Oaks resident is a doting grandmother to six grandchildren. She is philanthropic, giving to organizations including The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. She plays mahjong.

“I look like a typical country club woman,” she said.

But then there’s the part where she rappels out of helicopters and gets calls in the middle of the night to help a driver who lost control in the Malibu canyons.

Morton, 66, is a member of the Malibu Search & Rescue team, a group of about 30 volunteers, who are paid $1 a year for their services. A native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, she learned about the team in the late 1980s after a consultant her husband hired suggested he remove her as bookkeeper at his financial management company — something about it not being professional to employ his wife. She had worked in the position for eight years.

“So I was fired and it pissed me off,” Morton said. “I found myself with nothing to do.”

Morton, who always had been active, started hiking with the Sierra Club, and one member mentioned the Search & Rescue team. “Nothing about it sounded appealing,” Morton said.

“It just sounded so foreign, out of the realm of my comfort zone,” she added later. “It sounded like a lot of work. I didn’t know anyone who did that kind of thing. It’s like someone said, ‘Do you want to fly to the moon?’ It was just so foreign.”

A few months later, she and her late husband, Lon, drove by a billboard for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Reserve Deputy program, which the search and rescue team is part of.

“He looks at me derisively and says, ‘I bet that’s something you would like to do,’ ” Morton said. “He knew I liked to do odd things that were just a little off the beaten track.”

For example, Morton sometimes would rise at 4 a.m. and leave to go on an all-day hike. She liked river rafting and camping. “My husband didn’t really enjoy this kind of thing, but he was very supportive,” she said.

Morton reached out to her Sierra Club acquaintance and said she had changed her mind and now was interested in the team. And so began what she described as “a long, arduous process.”

“We are having a record year. We have almost hit as many calls this year as all of last year.”

— Roxanna “Rocky” Morton

First, she had to become a reserve deputy sheriff. “I was told at that time that for every 100 people who start the process, two will graduate from the academy,” Morton said. Before she could begin, she had to fill out a 20-page application, have a physical, and undergo a background check and psychological testing. 

During the four months she was in the academy, when she committed two weeknights and Sundays every week, there were moments when she waivered. But the physical challenges and camaraderie kept her going. “It was very exciting to learn how to shoot a gun,” Morton said. “We had to learn combat fighting, and I enjoyed that.” She added, “I hate to quit anything.”

Morton joined Malibu Search & Rescue in 1991. At the time, she was the only woman on the team. Now, there are several others. She remains the oldest member.

The team meets for monthly training sessions that can include shooting practice; “car over” drills using a truck and winch; tracking and searching by map, compass, footprints, even broken twigs; cliff rescues using a rope system; and rappelling out of a helicopter. That skill, she said, can be the best way to rescue someone lost deep in the wilderness.

Morton admits that descending from a helicopter can be nerve-wracking. “I’ll be honest,” she said. “Every time my heart goes a little thump, thump.” But once she is on the rope and is being lowered, her fear vanishes. “We call it an E ticket ride,” she said, referring to the most thrilling rides at Disney theme parks.

Serving with the team has meant some lifestyle changes. She tries to take her own vehicle everywhere because she needs to have her uniform and gear with her at all times and be ready to respond to calls. Sometimes she has to get up in the middle of the night or miss social functions. Once she was called away from Christmas dinner at the home of a friend to help a group of Jews who had gone hiking in Malibu State Park.

“Because there’s nothing else to do [on Christmas],” she joked.

Rocky Morton with her grandchildren (from left) Lane, Parker, Preston, Ace, Phoenix (being held) and Duke.

 

When the group of mostly women and children was located, Morton recalls approaching them. “I say, ‘Anyone here need toilet paper?’ I can’t tell you how happy those people were,” she said. “It’s the funniest little things you really miss [when you’re lost].”

Morton hasn’t been as active with the team as she would like in recent years as she has been busy with her grandchildren. She also was tending to her sick husband, who died earlier this year. And along the way, she also got her nursing degree at UCLA and worked as a pediatric nurse practitioner for about 10 years. But she has no plans to quit the team. In fact, going forward, she hopes to respond to more calls with an affirmative 10-8 (coming), rather than 10-7 (not coming).

“We are having a record year,” she said. “We have almost hit as many calls this year as all of last year. It’s not a good thing for the population. But for those of us who enjoy doing these things, it’s kind of fun. We do like to put our training to use.”

Morton has another reason for continuing to serve: Being a member of the team means her grandkids think they have the coolest grandmother in the world. “When they see me in uniform with a gun strapped to my hip, she said, “they are impressed.”

Is 65 the new 40?


Two years ago on Yom Kippur, Rabbi Laura Geller began her sermon at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills with a musical clip from The Beatles. “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” Paul McCartney famously sang.

Then Rabbi Geller, the congregation’s senior rabbi, noted that she was 62 at the time and thinking about aging. Not too many years away, she said, she would change from “senior rabbi to Laura, from a pulpit rabbi to a Jew in the pews.”  

And with those words, Geller challenged her congregation to join her in a journey to discover what an encore period in one’s life might look like in the 21st century. What are reasonable expectations and possible outlets for Jews when midlife turns to later life, when one’s identity is not so much defined by what we do as who we are, at a time when we’re nevertheless still young enough to engage in tikkun olam, healing the world?

That journey has led to a daylong public conversation on Nov. 9 at Temple Emanuel, titled “The Next Stage: Looking Forward, Looking Back.” The conference is co-sponsored by the synagogue with Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, as well as The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Angell Foundation and nine additional congregations of various denominations. 

The day will feature breakout groups and panels sessions, as well as a talk by Marc Freedman, CEO and founder of Encore.org, a site for those seeking meaning later in life. He also is the author of “The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife.”

Geller believes her age cohort has been underserved by our traditions, in part because in biblical times people lived much shorter lives (Abraham and Sarah notwithstanding). She pointed to the life markers outlined in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): At 5, we begin to study Torah; at 10, Mishnah; at 13, we become responsible for doing the mitzvot; at 15, we begin learning Talmud; and at 18, we get married. At 20, we’re ready for a career; at 30, for strength; at 40, understanding; and 50, advice. And at 60, zikna — which some of the commentaries translate as “wisdom.”

Are the boomers of today steeped in wisdom, or are they still seekers? What about the fit, trim 70-year-olds, the aging boomers who are not ready to throw in the towel? 

In recent years, Judaism has focused on funding schools, camps, youth trips to Israel, college campus life and building every possible kind of connection among youth. Meanwhile, Geller believes, the elders have been largely forgotten, and there is great potential for new programming for “boomers and those slightly beyond.” These include, in particular, empty-nesters whose families often live far away and who are looking for a new kind of family-like engagement or community, and for help in aging well in their own faith community. 

As a rabbi, and even before, Geller always has  been an activist and a community organizer. She was the third woman in the Reform movement to be ordained as a rabbi, and throughout her life she has worked for equal rights for women and for social causes — as a Hillel rabbi, at the American Jewish Congress and at Temple Emanuel, where she became the first woman to serve as senior rabbi of a major metropolitan congregation when she was hired there in 1994.

“All theology is autobiography,” Geller said in a recent interview in her office. “One of the things I learned early on in the women’s movement is that my experience is the Jewish experience.” 

Whereas she once helped to create new Jewish traditions inclusive of women — at seders and on the bimah — now Geller wants to create new traditions for older men and women, to answer the question: “Where is divinity present at this stage of my life?” She said there are not enough “proper blessings for older people” who are not ill but are still in need.

“The point is, it’s a stage of life that has been invisible,” Geller said. It is a new stage whose official name has yet to be fully coined.

“We’re calling it ‘Boomers and Beyond,’ ” Geller said; however, others have named it differently. The Conservative congregation at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino calls it “Next Avenue”; there are also some who call it “The Third Chapter,” and still others call it “The Encore Generation.” 

Following Geller’s Yom Kippur sermon, Temple Emanuel members met on multiple occasions at Geller’s home and in the homes of congregants to talk about how to approach the topic. Now, some are seeking information about existing senior accommodations — for themselves or aging parents. Others are considering inventing new forms of communal living in place of retirement homes and avoiding the wait list for the Los Angeles Jewish Home. These might include shared spaces, traded services and perhaps even co-owned property. Some members of the group are looking for new opportunities to travel with their community, or to find new outlets for volunteering and social service. 

Geller says she came to this conversation with questions, not answers, and even after two years of seeking, the answers are not yet apparent. But the conversation is real.

“If I want something different than what exists, I have to start thinking about it now,” said Geller, now 64. “The choices I make now will have a big impact on the 80-year-old I will someday be. Do I imagine aging in place? What do I need to do to bring the types of services into my community in order for me to be able to stay in my home and still be engaged in an intergenerational, interdependent community?”

Sunday’s event offers the public a place to exchange ideas for best practices, to learn from members of each of the participating congregations what might resonate for the others. Temple Emanuel is also in the midst of developing a new website that will offer ideas on spirituality, service, travel, community living accommodations and more — “the kind of thing you might see on a Jewish AARP.” Geller said. It will also address the question of creating end-of-life directives, allowing a person to express his or her desires about death long before becoming unable to convey them. 

To achieve some of these ideas, there also will be a political element, which would require the larger community buy-in — to allow, for example, zoning for new kinds of communities in cities like Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Culver City. This kind of conversation is already going on nationally — from New York to Los Angeles — so this year’s theme for the High Holy Days at Temple Emanuel was “If Not Now, When?”

Geller said she sees her role as a rabbi — be it as a feminist, a senior rabbi or a rabbi who will become a senior — to include everyone in the conversation about what Judaism is about. 

“What happened because of the feminist movement,” she said, “is we noticed all of the other marginalized communities within the larger Jewish community, and as a result the whole Jewish world today is more inclusive — gays, lesbians, older people, Jews with disabilities, Jews of color.”

What excites her most about this latest project, she said, are all the possibilities. “I don’t know where it’s going to end up. It’s a movement, a partnership with lots of other people … we’re figuring it out together.”

“The Next Stage: Looking Forward, Giving Back” takes place Nov. 9 from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Registration is $54 online, $60 at the door. To register, visit

Top toys for baby boomers


The kids have finally moved out, and retirement is on the horizon — it’s time you spoiled yourself with a few must-have toys. Whether your idea of luxury is never having to mow the lawn again or being able to pursue your favorite hobby, technology has ushered in a new era of gadgets and goodies just for you.

1. Although a self-mowing lawn has yet to be invented, there is a robot that can do all the work for you. The ROBOMOW RM400 ROBOTIC LAWN MOWER ($1,699.99) is fully programmable: You can schedule your mows at regular intervals, set the height of the lawn, and then let the robot roam. It even comes back to its base when the task is finished. Did we mention it senses rain and waits until the weather is fair to do its job? brookstone.com

2. With the KINDLE DX ($299) by Amazon, your search for a book that adjusts to your eyes is over. The nearly 10-inch tall, glare-free display on this e-reader has eight adjustable text sizes. It also holds up to 3,500 e-books at once, so your entire library can go wherever life takes you. amazon.com

3. If you fondly remember the flickering family films of your childhood, why not try to recreate them with the STOP MOTION CAMERA KIT ($135) from Uncommon Goods? The camera uses 35mm film and a hand crank to speed up or slow down the film as you shoot. And yes, you can always digitize your creations with the accompanying smartphone adapter. uncommongoods.com

4. Sometimes, nothing will quench your thirst quite like an ice-cold soft drink. Impress your family and guests with homemade pop thanks to the GENESIS SELTZER STARTER KIT ($99.95) by Israeli company SodaStream. Turn regular tap water into your favorite sodas while keeping excess waste out of landfills. This kit comes with a soda maker and 12 different soda mixes. sodastreamusa.com

5. Getting older is not an excuse to stop playing. The MICROSOFT XBOX 360 KINECT STARTER BUNDLE ($419.96) is a motion-sensing videogame system that adapts to your movements in a variety of games. From dancing to table tennis, you’ll have everything you need to satisfy your sports streak. The bundle comes with an Xbox 360 game console with Kinect, games “Kinect Sports” and “Dance Central,” and an HDMI audio/video cable to attach to your TV. bestbuy.com

6. Don’t let your boxes of vinyl continue to gather dust. THE LP AND CASSETTE TO CD/DIGITAL CONVERTER ($449.95) from Hammacher Schlemmer not only plays your favorite 33s, 45s and 78s, but it also allows you to digitize your records and cassettes. The player comes with built-in speakers and an AM/FM radio, as well as two RCA inputs to attach to your home sound-system. hammacher.com

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