The Aged

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


Old Age With a Jewish Flavor


From childhood on we are told that our parents, our elders, are to be respected.  They are wiser and more experienced than we and the only one of our ten commandments that has a special reward for obeying this command follows:  Honor thy father and thy mother that thou shall live long on earth.

Another directive in our Torah is to respect the elderly, to defer to them, to live like them, and blessings should be bestowed on us in the names of our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel.

We are directed to honor those with a “hoary” (white or graying) head since they have instilled wisdom and knowledge in us, have suffered and fought for us.

What are the realities of today?  Our American Jewish community is very much the same as the community as a whole regarding the old. The young are admired, lauded and held in esteem.  The elderly are ignored, ridiculed, denigrated and set aside. Their accomplishments are disregarded, lest they be world famous.  Families have time, energy, material goods to celebrate and to help the young, not the old.  Those advanced in age are expected to be generous, to hand over their material goods, and to praise and adulate those who have youth and physical energy.  They frequently shy away from the poor aging folk who have given their all to them. 

Examples are many:  We are praised not for ourselves but by the real or imaginary accomplishments of our children or grandchildren.  As Jews we are greeted with:  “You must have so much Naches (joy) from your grandchildren”.  The older people's accomplishments are ignored and diminished if they are recognized at all.  It is forgotten what good they have done, that the young stood on the shoulders of those who came before them, and that they have profited from them mentally, spiritually and monetarily.

We are very careful not to injure the feelings of the young lest they not forgive us or their “tender egos” are hurt.  Not so with the old.  There are innumerable hostile jokes directed at them and about them. Their feelings are not spared.  The only defense they feel they have is to imply that the hostile “child” will be excluded from their possible inheritance.  Is it no sad that materialism has so much meaning?

Concessions are rarely made for the old!  They may be invited by their offspring to participate in major events such as weddings, or bar or bat mitzvahs.  They are dusted off and presented to have the family appear in a good light.  The same is true if an elder accompanies their children on a vacation trip.  They are halfheartedly invited and the activities are geared only toward the young and energetic.  No allowance is made for the older hanger on and he is left to fend for him or herself.  His physical being and limited capabilities are ignored and he is “fortunate” if he is included in the dining experience.  The wise older person refuses such expeditions and remains at home if he is no longer able to make his own plans as he does not want to be a pariah (low caste) or a fifth wheel on the proverbial wagon. The old want to do, want to participate, want to be equals, want to be “allowed” to give in their fashion, want to be recognized and counted for who they are, not who their offspring or offspring of the offspring are, even if they are very proud of them.

Let us remember that everyone needs love and attention.  As Jews, let us doubly remember that we have a history of persecutions from the outside world; let us have regard for one another and respect the old as we do individuals of all ages.  There is the famous story of a young boy who saw his grandfather eating with a wooden spoon in the kitchen while his parents and others are feasting in the dining room.  One day the young boy whittles wood to make a spoon.  His father asks him what he is doing.  The child replies that he is making a spoon so that his father can eat alone in the kitchen when he, the dad, is old.  Remember you too will become old someday and you cannot escape that fate!  Prepare now by being a good example to your children, to your fellow Jews, and to the society in which you live!


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of  Deviant Nurses & Improper Patient Care (2006).

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