March 28, 2020

Why and How Elderly Are Our Obligation

In the Jewish tradition, there is a mitzvah from the Torah to honor the elderly.

Rashi writes that this mitzvah applies not only to wise elders but applies equally to the ignorant. The rabbis suggest that although many elderly may have forgotten much of their wisdom in their later years, this does not diminish their value:

“Be mindful of the elderly person who has forgotten his teaching for reasons that are not his fault, as it is said that the broken tablets rested with the tablets in the ark.”

Rambam states that we must honor the elderly as incontrovertible law, even if we do not consider them wise.

The rabbis believed that the elderly necessarily had wisdom that we could all learn from.

Rabbi Yose bar Yehudah of Kfar HaBavli says: “One who learns Torah from the young, to what can he be likened? To one who eats unripe grapes or drinks unfermented wine from his vat. But one who learns Torah from the old, to what can he be likened? To one who eats ripe grapes or drinks aged wine.”

We should consider deeply who we are attaining our wisdom from and how we are balancing out our perspectives. In addition to learning from the aged, the rabbis are clear that we must actively engage and support the elderly. Wise or not, this is a vulnerable population that is to be taken care of.

Sadly, in the United States today, the elderly are often neglected. Shocking statistics reveal some of the economic challenges that seniors face.

Government sources estimate hundreds of thousands suffer from abuse or neglect annually.

From 2011 to 2012, the rate of extreme poverty rose by a statistically significant amount among those 65 and older, meaning that a growing number of them were living at or below 50 percent of the poverty line. In 2012, this was $11,011 a year for an older person living alone.

The elderly are unfortunate victims of a perception based on statistics instead of reality.

Obviously, in many cities, the demands of monthly rent alone exceeds that of an annual income, even for those above the poverty line. Thus, using statistics, it appeared that in 2006 (before the recession), fewer than 1 in 10 of the elderly lived in poverty. However, more than 22 percent lived below the 150 percent poverty level (then about $13,000 a year). Even more pertinent to seniors, there are health care costs not factored in to poverty statistics. Taking these costs into consideration, even in a comparatively generous area (New York City), this more realistic poverty rate for the elderly would be 32 percent as of 2006. We must not be slaves to statistics, but should really see and understand the conditions that many of our nation’s seniors are forced to cope with in their later years.

Many of those struggling have suffered from long-term unemployment, debts, insufficient savings and inadequate Social Security support and retirement savings. This all is exacerbated by the consistent increased costs of living.

Furthermore, there are serious health risks that seniors face as they age.

Injuries and resultant fractures are responsible for thousands of serious injuries, disabilities and even deaths every year. The combination of decreased bone-mineral density and failing vision can lead to a tendency to fall.

Falls lead to bone fractures. Hip fractures are especially dreaded. They lead to disability and the necessity for institutional care.

Increased urgency for urination (often caused by diuretics and prescription
medications) can also lead to falls, as the elderly rush to get to a bathroom before they have an accident.

Health risks such as presbyopia (the inability to see near objects) and other visual problems such as macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy make seeing and avoiding obstacles increasingly difficult.

The inability to reach one’s feet is a serious problem. Feet are vulnerable to infection. Diabetics may be at risk of losing their feet if an infection is unattended.

Something as simple as trimming one’s toenails becomes virtually impossible, or fraught with the risk of cuts and infections.

Unfortunately, the growing elderly population faces yet another threat from abuse and neglect.

As people live longer, the quality of life does not necessarily increase.

Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, Parkinson’s and other disabling conditions prevent the elderly from taking care of themselves.

Caregivers are put under tremendous strain, as their relatives/patients deal with their symptoms.

Between a greatly increased workload and their frustration, caregivers can commit abuse or neglect — physical beatings, sexual assault, allowing patients to develop bedsores by not turning them over periodically, not giving them medication in a timely fashion, or failing to clean their urine and excrement.

Government sources estimate hundreds of thousands suffer from abuse or neglect annually. No wonder elderly people diligently try to avoid going to an assisted-care facility.

We can do our part by removing throw rugs and excessive furniture, making sure that doctors regularly visit patients and that bedridden patients regularly are bathed and turned so that they do not develop bedsores.

We can ensure that Social Security is bolstered, not weakened as an entitlement. Workers pay during their careers into the fund, so they are merely receiving what they are eligible for. Since more than half of all American workers have no private pension plan, one-third have no retirement savings, and by 2033, there will be more than 77 million elderly people, society’s need to provide resources for the elderly will become even more critical.

Of the numerous ways to honor seniors, they should not merely be symbolic. We can find more ways to help in a hands-on way, to advocate for their needs in society. The great Rebbe Nachman of Breslov wrote, “Gauge a country’s prosperity by the treatment of its elders.”

This story originally appeared in The Times of Israel.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.”