The Sages have a lot to say about the difference between dignifying our parents and revering them.
On April 21 at Congregation Har Tzeon Agudath-Achim in Silver Spring, Maryland, Howard Gleckman delivered a lecture on the Jewish view regarding caring for one’s parents, based on Jewish textual sources. Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, is the author of “Caring for Our Parents: Inspiring Stories of Families Seeking New Solutions to America’s Most Urgent Health Care Crisis.”
Dignifying or honoring is about action, he said. It means making sure that a parent has physical support such as nourishment, warmth, and help getting in and out of the house — in today’s parlance, “help with activities of daily living.”
Reverence is about attitude, or as the Talmud says, about a son not standing in his father’s place, Gleckman said.
“Joseph did quite well with the second. Jacob’s 17 additional years would seem to attest to that,” Gleckman noted. “I would argue that he did pretty well with the first as well. You get the sense that Joseph, who was immensely powerful in his public life, never forgot who was the son and who was the father.”
According to Gleckman, “parenting your parent” is “standing in your parent’s place.”
“That is just the opposite of reverence. It is exactly the sort of disrespect the rabbis warned against. It is stripping away the last bit of dignity from a person trying to preserve one’s diminishing independence,” he said.
Gleckman noted that we all have the right to make bad choices, as long as we are cognitively able and not hurting others. “For adult children, the message is that we had the right to do things our parents thought were dumb when we were 25, and they have the right at 85 to do things we think are dumb,” he said. Although the Talmud is clear that we should dignify and revere our parents, it does not however demand blind obedience: “If a parent is endangering herself, or is not capable or making decisions on her own, we do have an obligation to help make decisions, as long as we do it with respect.”
Should an adult child move a parent who can no longer care for herself into a care facility? Here the rabbis did not come to any agreement, not the least of which is because there were no nursing homes in the Middle Ages.
The lack of instruction from the sages notwithstanding, Gleckman offered some practical advice to would-be caregivers to help our parents or spouses — as well as to help ourselves.
“Lack of communication is the single biggest reason family caregiving falls apart. Adult children don’t ask parents what they want as they age. Parents don’t tell their children, and siblings don’t talk among themselves about how best to support their parents. It should be no surprise that conflicts arise when a crisis hits.”
“Caregiving is a great act of love, but is also a great burden, physically, emotionally, and financially. It’s enormously complex and has its own language.” He advised would-be caregivers to seek out resources for help when a loved one is still living at home, such as the Jewish Council for Living, private care managers, rabbis, and social workers. “Often people won’t listen to their families, but will take advice from a trusted third party like a rabbi or a chazzan [cantor].”
Looking at the role of community, Gleckman said that some shuls offer rides, meals, and visits to those in need, but unfortunately, they are few and far between.
“We could do much more to both help our elders and learn from them, and we could do more to support those among us who are caregivers,” he said.
By Frank Solomon
Frank Solomon lives in the Kemp Mill neighborhood of Silver Spring, Maryland, and is a member of Har Tzeon Agudath-Achim.