2021 was a tough year to be old

Are we failing the aging?

In Short

Especially because our nation is aging fast and our Jewish community is aging faster still, it is high time for institutions, communal leaders and funders to answer for themselves some hard questions about their responsibilities to older adults.

“Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land,” declares the fifth commandment. Yet when it comes to the pandemic-related plight of older Americans, we Jews have been strangely silent, especially in the public arena.

The CDC reported on October 14, 2021, that more than 81 percent of COVID-19 deaths occurred in people over age 65. That was 80 times higher than the number of deaths among people ages 18-29. By December, one of every 100 Americans over 65 had died from the disease. 

Would we be as silent if one of every 100 American children had died?

A study by Harvard and the University of Rochester found that “people in nursing homes are much more likely to die of COVID-19 if the staff caring for them remains largely unvaccinated” and that finding holds even when the nursing home residents themselves are vaccinated against COVID. Yet as of June, “COVID vaccination rates among staff members varied widely, from 31% to 83%.” “Where is the outrage?” asked NBC News on December 8, 2021, in its report of the research findings. It doesn’t seem to be coming from Jews despite our passion for social justice.

On May 25, 2021, Psychiatric News reported that one in five older people has experienced elder abuse during the pandemic, a jump of nearly 84% over pre-pandemic estimates. The National Council on Aging estimates that older adults have lost at least $36.5 billion from financial exploitation alone, yet such data as well as news about elder abuse overall rarely make headlines.

Abuse happens in the workplace, too. In 2021, AARP reported that 78% of older workers said they had seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace — the highest level since AARP began tracking the issue in 2003. Nevertheless, and despite many older adults’ experience, abilities and eagerness to work, many governments and employers including Jewish institutions do not include age in their commitment to diversity and inclusion.

2021 was a tough year to be old, even for those in good health.

Many of us 60-plussers were isolated and lonely. For a second year, we longed to hug our children, grandchildren and close friends. Instead, we tried to find solace in saying Kaddish on Zoom for loved ones lost. Heartsick, we saw our social circles shrink at a quickening, sickening pace. Opportunities to obtain gratification from volunteering and to have enriching social interaction disappeared. Yet many of us were physically ill, too, because we missed visits to the doctor and dentist or delayed surgery for fear of COVID-19. About 600,000 died from COVID anyway. 

We emerged from pandemic quarantines with a newfound appreciation of human contact. While homebound, we learned some handy tech skills, including those for Zoom and telemedicine. However, we also came to realize that governments at all levels and many private institutions including “caring nonprofits” cared less about us than we ever had imagined.

Jewish communities simultaneously inspired and disappointed us. On one hand, they raised and smartly utilized millions of dollars to help those in need. For example, they distributed food and essential supplies to older adults and families, and they launched or expanded telephone reassurance services and online programs to educate and uplift. Moreover, many were national leaders in protecting their clients, staff and volunteers from exposure to COVID. Yet in some communities, programs for the aging apart from housing, home care and hospice seemed to lose ground to programs for younger persons.

In My Jewish Learning, rabbi and aging expert Dayle Friedman said, “Jewish tradition not only obligates families to cherish and care for elders (as we learn from the fifth commandment), it impels all of us to honor older people…. [A]s a community, we are bound to foster a life of joy, meaning, and connection for elders in our midst. This is a highly countercultural commandment in the context of a society that discards and isolates elders. To fulfill this mitzvah, we need to combat ageism, and to recreate multigenerational communities, in which the old, young and in-between have opportunities to learn, celebrate and contribute to one another.”

Especially because our nation is aging fast and our Jewish community is aging faster still, it is high time for institutions, communal leaders and funders to answer for themselves some hard questions about their responsibilities to older adults. Indeed, it is all too easy to point with pride at some of the many stellar senior services without looking to see the larger number we’ve missed.

What services for older adults does your community offer? Do they bring joy, meaning and connection to most older adults including those with urgent needs? Do they promote wellness, combat ageism and combat elder abuse while otherwise meeting older adults’ Covid-related needs and needs in general? How do you know that? Where are the gaps and what is the plan to fill them?

Are aging services a top priority in your community? Are local Jews aware of elders’ needs and how the community is meeting them? Does your community share innovative ideas and collaborate on successful programs? Does it advocate in the public sector on behalf of the aging?

How do local agencies and your federation promote the concept that ability is ageless? Does each Jewish institution strive to have a model, multigenerational volunteer corps and paid workforce? Does each strive to eliminate age-discriminatory language and programs? What percentage of each organization’s new hires is 50+? 60+? 

Is your Jewish community a champion of persons aged 60 and better? Put another way, are you and your community outraged and outspoken when older adults are dishonored?

Our prayer is that beginning in 2022, we Jews will demonstrate by our actions how much we cherish people at every age and stage of life. In this, we are reminded of a passage from the Shel Silverstein story called The Little Boy and the Old Man: “’…[W]orst of all,’ said the boy, ‘it seems grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.’ And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand. ‘I know what you mean,’ said the little old man.”

David Gamse, a gerontologist, is CEO emeritus of the Jewish Council for the Aging (JCA) in Rockville, Md.
Norman Goldstein, a retired attorney, is a community activist and the immediate past president of JCA.