Elder Care in the Context of Jewish Values

Worried and solitarian

Yosef Meystel, the former president of YAM Management, possesses decades of experience in nursing home administration and residential health care management. Mr. Meystel, who maintains affiliations with business and philanthropic organizations in and around the Chicago metropolitan area, is also an investor in multiple Midwest-based healthcare companies. His strong commitment to Chicago’s Jewish community has benefited numerous nonprofit groups, including the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the Associated Talmud Torahs of Chicago-affiliated elementary school Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov.

As a businessman and philanthropist who takes Jewish values and tradition seriously, Yosef Meystel understands the importance of providing high-quality care to a community’s elderly citizens. Numerous Talmudic authorities and other communal leaders throughout the generations have stressed the particular importance of tikkun olam, the time-honored Hebrew phrase that refers to humanity’s obligation to assist in healing and improving the world.

When discussing the old age of Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people, the Torah focuses on the wisdom and experience he had accumulated over his long lifetime. The Torah and other Jewish sources traditionally regard old age as a blessing, and stress the importance of treating every older person with respect, no matter how much or how little he or she knows, or how observant he or she may be. This stems from the idea that simply experiencing the normal cycle of life’s joys and trials over many years gives a depth to an individual’s personality that even the most learned and accomplished younger person cannot attain.

Many rabbinic authorities point out that the culture of the 21st-century Western world does not always show this kind of deference and respect for elderly men and women. In too many cases, society regards older adults as a burden because they may lack their former physical prowess or agility. These authorities go on to say that using physical abilities as the sole yardstick by which to measure a person’s contributions to society is short-sighted at best. Older adults may not be able to move as quickly or gracefully as their children and grandchildren, but the sagacity and perspective on life that they have gained over their lifetimes should be viewed as a treasure of wisdom and insight.

Talmudic discussions mention that children must ensure that their parents’ basic health and personal care needs are met. Adult children must supply nourishing food, provide appropriate shoes and clothing, and assist aging parents in getting adequate exposure to fresh air and maintaining positive social contacts outside the home.

Halachic discussions—meaning those focused on interpretation of Jewish law—have sometimes centered on whether an adult child must pay for such care him or herself, or whether that child is simply obliged to use the parent’s funds to pay such costs. One consensus among authorities finds that, if a parent is unable to pay for his or her own care and the adult child refuses to do so, any monies the parent had set aside to direct to charitable causes may be deployed to pay for care. In this case, however, the sources are clear in offering a condemnation of a grown child who would refuse such support to an elderly parent. And more than one authority points out that the commandment to honor one’s parents should be fulfilled with a positive and generous spirit, rather than reluctantly or grudgingly.

While Jewish tradition stresses the importance of fulfilling a mitzvah—a commandment to perform a good deed—oneself, authorities recognize that in many cases this is not possible. For example, when an elderly parent needs extensive physical or medical care, or when that parent’s mental functioning may have deteriorated to the point that he or she needs constant supervision, few among today’s working adults would be able to provide ongoing attention themselves. This is where a high-quality nursing home or assisted living facility can step in to assist a son or daughter in fulfilling the commandment to honor an elderly parent, or one in failing health.

A good nursing home, whether it provides care to Jewish or non-Jewish residents, should exemplify the positive universal values in the Jewish tradition of honoring parents. The facility should possess a person-centered philosophy of geriatric care, and should strive to maintain the highest standards of medical support, as well as a warm and nurturing atmosphere.

One traditional story about the beloved sage Rabbi Akiva, who lived during the first and second centuries of the Common Era, described how he made sure to visit an ill and impoverished student. Akiva even swept the student’s floor and cleaned the student’s home; the grateful student responded that he might have died without such care. Jewish ethicists often use stories such as this one to demonstrate the importance of caring for the physical needs of those who are unable for any reason to care for themselves.

Older adults have assisted in shaping today’s world at local, national, and international levels. They personify the accumulated heritage of individual families and societies. When younger generations show respect for the elderly individuals in their midst, they in turn assist in preserving that heritage for their own children, and in modeling the standards by which they hope to be treated when they reach their senior years.