Giving back

Some view caretaking as a crisis, others consider it to be a special opportunity.

The Gropper Family with Elaine (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Gropper Family with Elaine
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is a Yiddish saying: “One father can take care of 10 children, but 10 children cannot take care of one father.”
The commandment to honor one’s mother and father (Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16) truly gets tested when our parents get older and become more frail and dependent. It is often a painful process for the adult children of aging parents to watch their once healthy and independent parents gradually lose physical and mental faculties.
For some aging persons, aging is a very gradual process, and they remain relatively functional and live out their lives without too much loss of their independence. Unfortunately, this is more the exception than the rule as aging, particularly getting into one’s 80s and 90s, often wreaks havoc on the elder person and surrounding support system, be it friends or family members.
Common health issues facing the elderly population can include frequent illness, a weakened immune system, sight and auditory impairments, physical disability, injuries from falls, stroke, cardiovascular problems, dementia and severe memory loss. Social relationships might be difficult to maintain in old age because of health limitations, death of friends and lack of transportation, making this population vulnerable to loneliness, depression and anxiety.
Some adult children rise to the occasion as their parents age. Others shut down and cannot handle the pressures that occur. It is not uncommon for siblings to get angry at each other about taking care of their elderly parents, particularly if one sibling lives nearby, thereby “inheriting” most of the burden, and is jealous of the other sibling further away. This is a common occurrence with olim who as a result of moving to Israel have left behind parents.
One thing is certain: Many elders need plenty of help, and no matter how much pride they have in maintaining their independence, there comes a time when doing it alone just isn’t going to work anymore. For the adult children of aging parents, this time of life can be seen as a crisis.
But as a cognitive therapist, I prefer to see it as a very special opportunity, and while challenging, a chance at giving back some of the love and care received from one’s parents. The roles are now reversed and yet it seems like a natural development in the life cycle.
My 98-year-old mother-in-law, Elaine, is a case in point. Elaine had been living on her own in an apartment complex for elders in the Boston area for 10 years following the loss of her husband. In the beginning, she was able to manage her life, made friends, and was assisted by her son who lived nearby and visited her often, keeping her refrigerator well-supplied.
But as the years passed, Elaine experienced increased memory loss and her functioning deteriorated. First Elaine received additional help from a caregiver who came into the apartment for a few hours a day to cook, clean and help her shower. However, after she fell twice within a year, necessitating hospitalizations, an operation and extensive rehabilitation, it became clear that she could no longer live alone.
At this point her son decided that the best and wisest alternative was to put her into a nursing home. It was at this point that my wife decided to bring her mom back to Israel, not wanting to see her placed in a nursing facility which she was sure would lead to her quick demise.
So, in December 2009, Ruth flew with her mom to Israel and Elaine, almost 96 years old, made aliya. In fact, The Jerusalem Post wrote a short story about it, with a photograph. With the help of Nefesh b’Nefesh to expedite the aliya process, and the helpful advice of fellow olim who have gone through the same process, we chose to rent a nearby apartment and hire a wonderful companion and caretaker for Elaine.
Elaine lived quite well. Her family physician joked around and stated that when she turns 100 he had a ruble to give her.
Certainly there have been many trials and tribulations taking care of Elaine’s health needs and one or two health crises, but this amazing Russian-born woman continued to enjoy her life in Israel with her children and grandchildren. Every Friday night Elaine sat at our Shabbat table, sang Shabbat songs, and had often been the center attention with our children and our friends.
Taking care of Bubby had been at times very taxing, but the pleasure we all felt to see her smile brought great benefit to the entire family. For my wife, the journey to make aliya has now closed an important circle. Ruth was able to take care of her aging mother and make sure she got the care she needed and deserved.
Since writing this article, Bubby was hospitalized and subsequently passed away peacefully. We will miss her dearly but will always remember the love and smiles we shared together and the security she felt being close to all of us and getting so much love and care.
The writer is a marital, child and adult psychotherapist practicing in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ra’anana.