The Treatment of the Old


Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


De Rerum Natura

You shall rise before the gray head and you shall honor the face of the old.

There are approximately 42,000 suicides in the United States each year. Men kill themselves four times more often than is true for women. Among Americans age 10 to 34, suicide is the second most common cause of death.  Among those 35-44, suicide is the fourth most common cause of death, and among those fifty-five and over it is the 5th most common cause of death.  However, those who are 85 years old and more are four times more likely to kill themselves than occurs among all other ages. Sixty-nine percent of suicides are by white men.

The reasons for killing oneself depend on both status and role. A status is the sum of our privileges. Since men have a higher status in American society than women and whites have a higher status than blacks, it is not surprising that both of these groups have a higher suicide rate than others. Those who have had privileges are more likely to kill themselves than those who have gained little money or  prestige.

Popular opinion holds that the old kill themselves most often because they are sick. This is not true. The reason for the  high suicide rate among those 75 or more is abandonment. Old people who are isolated and alone kill themselves when no one calls or visits them or no one speaks to them and they are shunned. Shunning refers to the failure to speak to someone or acknowledge the target exists.  Old people are invisible in that selective perception allows younger people to ignore the old. Locked into nursing homes or assistant living facilities, many old people lose their identities, as no one speaks to them and no one allows them to participate in any human reciprocal relationship. The fact is that the old are invisible and rejected. Contempt for the old is called gerontophobia. This makes the old invisible in that their existence is ignored and their physical presence is overlooked. Those who are regarded as unpleasant are not even seen.    This is the condition of the old in the United States.

Judaism teaches the contrary. The Torah admonishes us, “You shall rise before the gray head and you shall honor the face of the old. And you shall fear God. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:32.)  The American Jewish community, with the exception of those labeled orthodox, is not acquainted with the Torah.  Therefore  American values concerning the old are followed in the Jewish community and particularly among Conservatives, who now account for 15% of the Jewish community in this country. Therefore the old or those labeled old  soon find that they are not welcome among  Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and agnostic Jews, who together are the vast majority of the  Jewish community.

Like so many other American “senior citizens,” many Jewish people in this country find that they are isolated, alone, and viewed as non-persons. There are numerous examples of the treatment of so many “old” people's experiences .

For example, an “old” person visits a doctor in the company of a younger  individual, usually an adult child. The doctor examines the patient and then talks to the adult child who brought him but ignores the patent.

A widow sits in her living room surrounded by relatives and congregants to commemorate her deceased husband. The visitors talk to each other. Eat, drink, tell jokes, but never once say a word to the bereaved widow.

Adult children want their widowed father to enter a nursing home because they are tired of having to visit him at home. He has too many requests. So they talk him into entering a nursing home or assisted living establishment. Now the old man finds out that nursing homes do not  nurse, nor are they homes. Assisted living places are likewise not what is advertised. Instead, both institutions serve to enrich the owners, who charge so much for the incarceration of the so called patient that he is soon destitute and needs government aid to remain in the “home.” There all his possessions are stolen by the staff who work there. Meanwhile the old patient sits in a drugged condition in a wheelchair while sleeping all day. Many nursing homes are silent because the “patients” sleep all day and often do not eat because they stay in bed all day, sleeping to avoid facing the misery of staying alone in their rooms. Nursing homes are prisons which punish the greatest crime an American can commit. That “crime” is called old age.

Jewish Americans deal with the old just like all Americans. The Jewish ethics are ignored, if even known. Jews  know nothing of Leviticus 19:32. All they know is that the old “get on my nerves” and are a burden to normal people.

There are of course Jews and others who seek to alleviate the misery old age brings along.  These are Jews who are Torah true, who seek to be of help to the old, who believe that old people are human too, and that Leviticus 19:32 applies to them. These are  true Jews, true followers of Shem Yisborach, and the few who practice what they preach according to the dictums of Moses and Israel . These are the Jews who have begun to save us from destruction as they remember the greatest commandment of them all:  "Veohavto lerayacho komocho."

Shalom u'vracha.

 Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Jewish Community in the 20th and 21st Century (2021).

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