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When Young and Old Meet

Published on Thursday April 1st, 2021

Aside from our own grandparents, we often have trouble connecting to older people for different reasons.

When we were younger, we often visited old people to accomplish the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim. But this was more often than not an obligation imposed by our parents, our teachers or other. Thus, we easily link old age with “Bikur Cholim ", visiting of the sick.

I joined the Rothschild Foundation Retirement Home more than four years ago to officiate as a cantor. I had to quickly adapt to this new setting.

Coming from a young and dynamic synagogue, I suddenly found myself leading services for the synagogue of the Foundation, amid a vast audience of old age home residents.

I admit that my first reaction was fear. I feared to be unable to talk to them, I feared to have to assist them and help them in their daily movements, etc ...

I realized that the journey of life is pretty weird. Witnessing seniors who use diapers and need help to accomplish the minutest necessities of life, or who move around with walkers and wheelchairs is pretty poignant. We come to the realization that our life cycle begins with a rising curve that later comes tumbling down until we face needs similar to those of newborn babies.

But my relationship with old people quickly developed into something different than what I had expected.

At the Rothschild Foundation, the officiant and the Rabbi do not perform the task of managing their respective fields exclusively. In addition, they must recite the Kiddush on Shabbat and holidays in a large refectory for boarders residing on all floors, and serve them a little wine.

When I recited my first Kiddush for them, they reacted happily and I was pleasantly surprised. They were grateful to have a new, young person and wanted to know all about me. They thanked me for being there and for dedicating my time to them. When we witness elders smiling with tears in their eyes and thanking us by saying: "it reminds me of my younger years when my father recited this prayer", we understand that we, the younger generation, have a role to play.

From that point, I understood that there was no need to look at them in an empathetic or sorrowful way, but rather, to infuse them with all my dynamism and joy.

In engaging with elders, we ourselves are given an opportunity to learn a great deal. Many elders get reminded of something important which happened in their youth when they engage in conversation with members of younger generations.

Many seniors at the home were related to someone who lived through the Holocaust or were themselves Holocaust survivors. So, having the amazing opportunity to discuss this theme with them opened a window into the past which was much more valuable than what I could learn from a history book.

Likewise, when we chat with a person who shares our origins and ethnicity, be it Tunisians, Moroccan, Algerian, etc, we learn about our own heritage, our past and our customs. I always take great pleasure in conversing with them. I remind them of certain traditions related to holidays, such as the Msoki of Pesach, as well as traditional culinary Shabbat dishes. Unfortunately, they are no longer served these delicacies at the retirement home where the food is certainly Kosher but fails to satisfy their palates with the familiar food of their youth.

I never talk to them in a condescending tone.  Rather, I tell them jokes, tease them and speak in a happy go lucky manner. This makes them forget the framework in which they live and makes them smile. For me, it is something critically important.

I also notice how mingling with youth infuses energy to old people. When I bring my children to visit and serve them Kiddush wine, and they watch these joyful little children running around and helping me serve them, their hearts rejoice.

Since I was hired by the Rothschild Foundation, I have often asked myself "how will I be at their age"? Who will be able to run every morning in the halls of the Foundation at 90?

One who is losing his memory? Or one who needs a walker or a wheelchair?

Nevertheless, apart from these issues, these people, whoever they are, could be our grandparents.

They always thank us for taking them from one point to another, for sitting down for a chat, even if it’s just for five minutes, and for introducing them to our families.

The fears I experienced at the beginning subsided and were replaced by an authentic joy to see them. Actually, one day it will be our turn.

However, the most difficult part of my job is to witness the end of their journey. We may rub shoulders with these people daily; but one fine day, one by one, they leave this world; it's pretty hard to bear.

They may be absent for a few days because they cannot leave their bedrooms and hang out with others. And soon enough, they leave this world...

In the following weeks, we notice their empty chairs in the synagogue and the dining hall. A few weeks later, the latter is occupied by new residents.

This makes us realize that we are just passing through this earth.

At times, I wonder whether I should become more involved or take a step back to avoid pain. But, at the end of the day, I prefer to act sincerely and avoid distancing myself. The challenge is to learn how to draw different lessons from these people and remember everything I’ve learned from their life experience.

Many people my age (30) consider old age a "disease". Because we do not know how old age will strike and affect us, nor how we will endure this “disease”.

However,  we pray every day for a long life to a ripe old age. We pray for this "disease" which is not a disease at all.

It is simply a milestone we must go through. And we hope, when the time comes, to have many young people around us to infuse us with dynamism to soothe the pain and decrepitude of our old age.

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