Jewish Living

Appreciating the Golden Years

It is an unavoidable fact of life that from the moment we are born, we begin to get older. In our forties, we move into the “old age of youth,” followed by the fifties, which has been called the “youth of old age.” The sixties gets us closer to the category of old age, unless we adopt the attitude of Bernard Baruch that “old age is fifteen years older than I am.”

By the time we hit eighty, we are officially in old age—if we accept Bob Hope’s definition that old age is when the birthday candles cost more than the cake. Incredibly, in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), we are told by Rabbi Yehudah ben Tema that the eighties is the “decade for might” (5:25). This statement seems to contradict all that we know about the human condition. What is the meaning of this seemingly incongruous statement?

In my commentary on Pirkei Avot,* I suggest that we contrast this with another statement in the same mishnah: the thirties is the “decade for strength.” At thirty, one possesses an abundance of strength. One is able to extend himself in many directions and reach out toward many causes. As one gets older, however, he begins to realize that he is not superhuman, that he needs to choose his priorities because he lacks the strength to do everything.

This process of channeling energy is an expression of might. Strength refers to unlimited energy and ability. Might refers to limited capacity that reveals a special power—that of having to decide what is truly vital.

A variation of this appears in the Tiferet Yisrael commentary to this mishnah. The author, Rabbi Yisrael Lifshitz, suggests that by eighty the spiritual self overcomes one’s physical self. With one’s material desires weakened, it is generally easier, on a spiritual level, to fulfill the mitzvah obligations. Indeed, as we get older, we are urged to do everything that we have done in our younger years, including marrying, having children, and studying and teaching Torah (Yevamot 62b).

On the other hand, Rashi observes that it is a great feat to reach the age of eighty, and if one lives even longer than that, he is living by the might (gevurah) of God, since he no longer has his own power upon which to rely. Rashi seems to take a dim view of old age, which somewhat echoes the Talmudic (Shabbat 151b) reference to old age as the “bad days” (yemei ra’ah).

So, which is it? Is old age good or bad? Is it a sign of strength or weakness? Power or powerlessness? Perhaps it is everything. Perhaps old age is both good and bad, depending on many factors. Whatever old age may be, it is clear that most of us would prefer, if at all possible, to slow down, even avoid, the aging process.

Consider Fasudil, a drug used primarily for stroke patients. Researchers recently discovered that Fasudil significantly improves learning and memory in rats. Thus, there is hope that this, and perhaps other drugs, will be an effective cognitive enhancer.

Matthew Huentelman, an investigator at the non-profit Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, where researchers mistakenly found that Fasudil could be a potential brain sharpener, is quoted as saying: “To me, aging is the worst disease [my italics], because it happens to all of us. Improving our ability to age, aging more gracefully as they famously say, is a benefit for all” (The Ottawa Citizen, 17 February 2009). Nothing better captures the general climate in our world than the notion that aging is a disease. And what is the most effective way to avoid catching this disease? By staying away from the aging germ (i.e., by staying away from older people). What a powerful, disappointing, even ugly statement this is about a natural process that is extolled in Jewish tradition.

We live in a culture that venerates youth, power and the potential to achieve. Judaism, by contrast, venerates not the potential to achieve but rather achievement itself. Remember the famous midrash about the ship coming in to port versus the ship just setting forth on a journey? We applaud the ship that has completed the journey successfully, despite being anxious about its embarking. Similarly, we should applaud the completed life rather than the one with still unrealized fulfillment (Tanchuma, Vayakel 1; Kohelet Rabba 7:1).

The older one becomes, the more one is deserving of respect, and the more the younger generation must bestow that respect. This simple little dynamic makes the difference between older people feeling a part of the world or apart from the world.

And, in fact, who are the leading members of the community? The elders, the sages who are looked to for guidance on issues large and small. The older these sages become, the more they are respected and sought after. And the more they have difficulty getting around, the more they will be looked after by students and disciples in order to ensure that the community continues to be blessed by their presence and wisdom.

As Jews, we categorically reject the view that aging is a disease, and that therefore those who are aged are, almost by definition, ill. Instead, we insist that as one ages, he becomes more important to the welfare of the community, especially in a community built on the wisdom of the Torah.

At the same time, we cannot avoid the fact that many people are afraid of getting old. They are afraid of the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. When children care for their aging parents, they not only see what is transpiring before their eyes, but they also get a glimpse into their own future, instilling in them fear and dread. I wonder how many of those who are derelict in caring for their parents are so because they fear that in looking at their parents, they are actually looking at themselves a few decades down the road.

So how can we deal with the prospect of aging, with its inevitability and with the potentially unpleasant realities that come with it? Here are a few simple insights:

1. Embrace the prospect of aging. Though we would all love to stay young for as long as possible, there is no way to get around getting older except by dying younger. Rather than lament what might be, it helps to be genuinely grateful for the opportunities and the accomplishments we have been able to attain, and to therefore embrace the prospect of getting older.

There is no need, or at least there should not be a need, to push ourselves beyond our capacity as we get on in years, to show that we can still do a strenuous hour on the treadmill or swim fifty laps. A less strenuous half hour, or only twenty laps, is perfectly acceptable. And embracing the prospect of getting older is a true expression of hakarat hatov—recognizing, acknowledging and appreciating the good that is our gift in life.

2. Take care of yourself now. The more we take care of ourselves earlier in life, the better we will feel later on. Eating the right foods and having good health habits, which includes not smoking or drinking and getting adequate sleep and exercise, will put us in better shape later in life. Yes, there are those who were diligent in all these areas and still had a nasty time in their later years, but they are the exceptions, not the rule.

Remember the famous comment by Rabbi Chanina that the care extended to him by his mother during his younger years enabled him to be in such good shape in his later years (Chullin 24b)? We are also wise to remember the witticism that “If I’d known I was going to live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

3. Cultivate age-resistant activities. Researchers of dementia and aging highly recommend engaging the mind with challenging activities such as puzzles. Jews have a much more potent antidote to aging: learning Torah. The more we occupy ourselves now with the intellectual stimulation of Biblical and Talmudic studies, the better off we will be later on. Not only will our brains remain sharp, but we will also have a meaningful activity with which to fill the day. If we come into old age as lame-brained couch potatoes, the chances of mental atrophy significantly increase.

All this is beautifully expressed in the observation that sages, as they get older, increase their wisdom, whereas ignoramuses, as they get older, become more ignorant (Shabbat 152a; Kinim 3:6). Wine gets better with age, and so do we. Hopefully, we will improve both mentally and spiritually.

We live in a culture that venerates youth, power and the potential to achieve. Judaism, by contrast, venerates not the potential to achieve but rather achievement itself.

4. Talk about the future with your children. Children play a large role in what happens to us in the later years. You are best off talking about this with them sooner rather than later. Your children will appreciate your openness, and will welcome a discussion about plans that will hopefully marry your desires with their capacities.

Being secretive helps no one, and causes children to operate in the dark—most often leading to disappointment and conflict. As much as we can, we should help our children fulfill their obligation to honor us.

5. Allow your children to help you. This is critical. Many parents say they do not want to impose on their children, that the children have their own lives to live. But most children want to help their parents. Indeed, children are obligated to help their parents in their older years. This is what the mitzvah “Honor your father and mother” means—that we look after them, feed them, clothe them and escort them in order to help them maintain their dignified, honored reality when older age makes basic things like getting dressed in the morning more difficult (Kiddushin 31b).

We are usually not allowed to deny others the opportunity to fulfill their mitzvah obligations. Why should it be different with the mitzvah to honor one’s parents?

Parents have no right to deprive children of that great fulfillment, and instead should facilitate it by happily and gracefully accepting the help their children offer.
In the end, we are all in this challenge of aging together. And we can all contribute toward making old age anything but a disease. On a communal level, we need to ensure that the imperative to stand up for our elders (Vayikra 19:32; Kiddushin 32b) is not just a perfunctory mitzvah but is the directive it was intended to be—a primary, embracing social value, the expression of genuine, obvious veneration of our elders. And on a personal level, we need to embrace mental-physical-spiritual health preservation, as mandated in the Torah (Devarim 4:15, for example), so that our twilight years will reflect the true gevurah of our enlightened choices in life. Ultimately, it may not be in our hands whether we live longer, but it is in our hands whether we live better.

*As a Tree by the Waters (New York, 1980). Reprinted as Chapters of the Sages (Maryland, 2002).

Rabbi Dr. Reuven P. Bulka is the rabbi of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa, Canada, and chair of the Trillium Gift of Life Network.

This article was featured in the Winter 2009 issue of Jewish Action.