When I was 6 years old, my mother was the activities director at a nursing home in Orlando, Florida. Each day after school, I was dropped off at the center to be with my mother until the end of her work day. I can recall getting to know, and even befriending, many of the residents of the ‘home’. I remember Lloyd, who ran a rowdy game of gin rummy where we gambled with jelly beans and took home bragging rights. I remember sweet Irving, who I used to walk around the home with and talk about my friends and life. I remember Elizabeth, the kindest and tiniest woman with curly hair and large rimmed glasses. We spent countless hours playing chopsticks on the piano and singing off-key duets in the music room. I also remember leading my very first Friday night service for the residents, singing with them and welcoming Shabbat as a community. I have fond, vivid memories of those days.
I also remember experiencing loss for the first time. One day, when I went to visit Irving, he was not there. My mother told me he died. I didn’t really understand, but knew that I wouldn’t see him again. I was devastated. I remember going to see Elizabeth one day, and she couldn’t remember who I was. I asked my mom why. She explained that sometimes when people get older, they can’t remember things as well as they used to. Not too long after that, our days of playing piano and singing together came to an end. These once wonderful, warm, and loving friendships seemed to disappear without warning.
Clearly, as a 6-year-old boy, I had no concept of what aging meant and what life was like for those who struggled to maintain their independence, their cognitive faculties, and their lives. I just knew that it was sad when they were gone.
Twenty-two year later, as a social work intern at Jewish Family Service, I had the opportunity to work as a case manager to older adults in West Hollywood, California. As I attended our most recent Brunch Club this week, I was reminded of my past clients who were confronted with significant challenges of aging. During that year, I learned about the devastating sense of loss that comes with diminished independence. I remember sitting with one women who was unable to renew her driver’s license. Devastated, she explained that if she couldn’t drive any more, she might as well die. My heart broke. And yet there were moments I was able to bring some joy into their lives, simply by taking the time to visit and connect. Some were lonely, others were angry, and yet some were truly satisfied with the way they were living their lives. I’m so grateful I had those opportunities, both at 6 and at 28, to gain a deeper understanding of some of the trials facing older adults. I think it helped to build my own humanity, compassion, and empathy.
I am proud of our Federation and Women’s Philanthropy division for facilitating a meaningful conversation about healthy aging in our community at this week’s Brunch Club. This week’s program was developed based on our commitment to combating the detrimental effects of isolation and loneliness. In fact, Federation is innovating and funding a solution that facilitates home visits from a social worker who will connect older adults to services that will improve their quality of life. This type of work reflects our Jewish value of rachmanut (compassion) and honors the lives of older adults like Irving, Elizabeth, and countless other Jewish older adults our community cares for and strives to support.