Rabbi Richard Address

Time To Find Your God?

By Rabbi Richard Address –

Eric Weiner, a former National Public Radio reporter, has just published a fascinating book entitled “Man Seeks God.” I mention it to you because it raises some interesting questions about our relationship (or lack thereof) with God. Questions posed by young and old alike.

The genesis of his book was a discussion Weiner had with a health care professional in a hospital. He was there thinking he was extremely ill. This health care worker, thinking the tests were going to be bad news, asked Weiner, “Have found your God yet?”

That simple question set Mr. Weiner off on a whirlwind exploration of various religions. Eric was trying to understand what each religion’s God was, and if he could adopt it for himself.

The book is quite relevant to many of us who are, in some ways, dissatisfied with the God that we were raised with. So many people are searching for some sort of meaningful faith that Weiner’s journey, in many ways, symbolizes the journey for many of us. We may not have the means to travel the world and spend weeks in various communities; but we are searching. That is the point, I think, of the book. I like the phrase, “have you found your God?” Our generation of baby boomers has pioneered the ability to create personal religious responses and, in many ways, hybrid definitions of God. This spiritual dynamism marks a clear reality across the religious landscape. It represents some real creativity on the one hand, and sadly, for some, a way to just do “religion lite.”

The search for our own God is a serious undertaking. It asks us to confront our own sense of self, our relationship with life and death and our own view of what we see as our legacy. In the New Year now beginning, I suggest that it is a perfect time to consider undertaking your own search. Looking for your God, unencumbered by “oughts” and “shoulds” may be a liberating and energizing experience. An experience you can start today and not left until you are older.

Shalom,

Rabbi Richard F Address, D.Min

Learn more about Rabbi Address on his bio page. Find more articles by Rabbi Address in Spirituality & Life section of our library.

Rabbi Address is author of the book “Seekers of Meaning: Judaism, Baby Boomers and the search for Healthy Aging”. You can learn more about Rabbi Address and his books at www.jewishsacredaging.com

Discussing Spirituality Your Elders

by Marion Somers, PhD -

If you are a caregiver, an elder under your care may want to discuss spirituality with you. I have found that this is especially common when one is nearing the end of his or her life. By all means, encourage your elders to explore their spiritual thoughts and feelings. Many seniors (and people, in general) believe there are forces at work in the universe, and many of them have tapped into some form of spirituality. It’s just not possible to understand everything that happens, and spirituality can help explain things. Even if spirituality is not discussed, it does exist in most people’s conscious lives. The connectedness to a spiritual life helps people deal with hardships, face fears, and can ultimately give hope. Most of my clients get a great deal out of their religious activities. It helps them feel that their life has a meaning and a purpose.

Nearly every one of my clients experiences an inner awareness or a quiet peace before they pass on. Even if fishing is their “religion,” they know where they need to go to find that quiet space for reflection, to recharge, and gain perspective. This process helps our elders find a way to let go of emotions and worldly trappings, and become ready to travel free. Not everyone acknowledges or feels the need to have a spiritual life, and I respect that too. We all have a right to make the decision on our own.

But for those who embrace a spiritual life, it can provide a source of strength above and beyond a person’s own humanity. I’m not just talking about spirituality in terms of the regular routine and/or regimentation of going to a house of worship. It doesn’t need to be confined by four walls, icons, meeting times, and rituals. Spirituality is the path each of us takes to find the quiet within ourselves. Some people do like the routine though. Going to a house of worship often provides a sense of community and companionship. Spirituality can really be whatever a person wants it to be. The crucial part is to have a quiet knowing that there’s something beyond yourself that can help give meaning to the peaks and valleys of life. Religion and spirituality can be a way to center oneself and find internal and external comfort.

A version of this blog appeared on Dr. Marion’s Web Site.

Lessons from the Jewish High Holy Days

by Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin - 

Those of us in the Jewish community are in the process of our annual High Holy Days. The new year celebration of Rosh HaShana and the solemn day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is quickly followed by a week long festival calledSukkot.

These festivals and observances are, to be brief, designed to focus the individual on one’s place in the world and give time for individual reflection on their past and future actions. It is a time of deep reflection, renewal, and re-focusing of the self. The Sukkotfestival connects the individual not only with the self, but with the idea of nature and the fragility of life, symbolized by the temporary dwelling called a sukkah which synagogues and many Jewish people construct.

There are so many messages that emerge from these holy days. For us, as boomers, however, I am struck by the constant refrain of change and renewal. This is a time in our life when so much seems to be changing, our families, our relationships, our bodies and our own hopes and dreams.

Often it is easy to get lost in these changes and loose sight of our own self.

Yet, there is this message: we have the power and freedom to continue to grow and evolve, that the future awaits us and we need the courage to follow our own hopes and dreams; perhaps to risk that new relationship or venture. We gradually become aware that life is moving faster than ever and to stand still courts a death of the spirit. Religion, if it is to have any meaning to us as individuals, must reinforce the idea that each of us has within us the capacity for continued change and evolution. Our festivals and rituals help focus on this idea that to be human we need to change and grow–no matter what our age of life stage.

That is a valuable message from these Holidays. Take the risk, assume the challenge, and do not fear to move forward in life.

Rabbi Richard F Address, D.Min can be reached at Jewish Sacred Aging

At the Edge of an Abyss? Part 2

A baby boomer tsunami on the way.

By Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin

A few weeks ago the “call” came. From the assisted living facility to me: I needed to run home from New York and get to the hospital. My 95-year-old mom was being taken there.

Thus began a journey not unfamiliar to so many. As I alluded to last time, the abyss of reality caused by dementia is very real.

It is a truth that impacts increasing numbers of people and will become a major issue (if it hasn’t already) for boomers. For, not only are our parents “enjoying” longevity, but we are expected to as well.

Here is an astounding statistic. Beginning on January 1, 2011, baby boomers will start turning 65 at a rate of one every eight seconds. This fact was recently published in a short, but powerful, op-ed piece titled “The Age of Alzheimer’s” (New York Times, October 28, 2010). It was co-written by Sandra Day O’Connor (the first woman justice to be appointed to the Supreme Court), Stanley Prusiner (a Nobel Prize winner and expert in neurological issues), and Ken Dychwald (an expert on issues of aging and baby boomers).

One of the main issues in this piece is the lack of concentrated funding for research: “The National Institutes of Health still spend about $3 billion a year on AIDS research, while Alzheimer’s, with five times as many victims, receives a mere $469 million.”

This is not to pit one disease against another; instead, it is to indicate that as the numbers of older adults continue to rise, we need to realize that the cost of caring for patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s will skyrocket. As the article noted: “The United States spends $172 billion a year to care for people with Alzheimer’s. By 2020 the cumulative price tag, in current dollars, will be $2 trillion and by 2050, $20 trillion.”

Clearly, we are at the beginning of a major wave. The blessing of longevity can also, for some, become a curse. As many of you know, the impact on families—emotionally, spiritually and financially—can be overwhelming. There are many resources from many organizations that deal with issues of dementia and Alzheimer’s. May I suggest that the time may be right for your social group, church, synagogue, mosque, community center, etc., to develop some educational programming that can provide information and support not only for families and individuals who are dealing with this long good-bye, but also for those who will face it in the future.

Shalom.

At the Edge of an Abyss? Part 1

Beginning the last chapter.

By Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin

Longevity has many blessings. It has given us the gift of time, and if we are blessed, that time provides millions of people with untold opportunities for new experiences.

Longevity has its challenges as well. I have written in this space about new life stages that our longer life spans have created. I have written on the life stage of caregiver, which can last for years.

It now seems that I have encountered another aspect of that caregiver stage. My mom, who is in her mid-90s, is now dealing with an accelerating case of dementia. It had, in the past few months, begun to take away her ability to function. It has landed her in the hospital and confronted us with new choices and new realities, among them being the fact that we have begun the last chapter.

As many of you know, it is easier to teach the “art” of caregiving to a class than it is to live it. As many of us learn, it is easier to speak about working with a parent than it is to try to make sense of the illogic of a moment with a mom or dad who may still see you as her or his child. Standing in a hospital corridor, it is daunting to be faced with the need to understand, within just a few moments, the complexities of negotiating the Medicare-Medicaid health systems. But many of us do.

I keep trying to remember that this will all work out and that it is important to take care of the “me” that can so easily be lost. A doctor I spoke with kept reminding me to remember to eat right, exercise, and take time each day to try to renew the soul. Certainly there is enough literature on this to support the fact that the health of a caregiver is of primary concern given the stresses that must be endured. Yet, as many of you know, it is easier said than done!

So, we have entered a new stage of this long caregiving journey. Longevity is a blessing—for some. But for others? We value and praise the value of life. Every religious tradition does, and no one argues or finds fault with that. A challenge, however, for an increasing number, will be to remember the gift and beauty of life in circumstances that challenge that gift. An underlying value still is “dignity and sanctity.” At the edge of an abyss of unknown proportion, it is a calling to remember that dignity and sanctity, and safety and security, are still present and powerful aspects of life, even as that life begins to make its final turn.

Shalom.

After the Fall?

‘Hello, this is the nurse…’

By Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin

One of the challenges of our generation of caregivers is that you never know when a call will come.

The night before Rosh Hoshonna this year, I was settling in after a day of preparation. The sermons were written, and I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. I was nursing a Diet Coke, at about the eighth inning of the Phillies game, when the phone rang. It was my mom’s assisted living facility. When the voice you hear begins the conversation with, “Hello, this is the nurse,” the odds are that it is not a good sign. My mom, who is 94+, had fallen. The fall had been witnessed by a worker who had come to give her some medication. Now Mom was balking at being taken to the hospital to make sure there were no aftereffects.

Many of us have gotten this call. For some reason, it seems to come at night! What to do when your parent refuses to go to the hospital? Is his or her right to make a decision the controlling factor? Or is there a higher value?

I have power of attorney for my mom, and I explained that her refusal could put her in danger. You have had similar conversations. The higher value is always the health and safety of the loved one. In this case, it seemed pretty clear: the possibility of head injury or some residual effect of the fall required a trip to the ER. Thankfully, after several hours in the ER and a battery of tests, we were able to take Mom back to her apartment.

Her only request was a turkey hoagie.

The suddenness of falling is scary. No matter how “fall proof” you make a room or facility, you cannot take into consideration every random movement, or the possibility that your loved one will attempt to move an item without using his or her walker, or myriad other scenarios.

It is always a good idea to have a plan in place, to discuss procedures with the facility in which a loved one resides, or to have emergency plans if that person lives alone (personal emergency response pendants, etc.). Having power of attorney is crucial. It is not a removal of dignity or independence for the frail elderly; rather, it can be a vital aspect of extending their longevity. The stresses and strains in caregiving are known to many of us. The higher value must always be the health and safety of the person we are caring for.

Have a sweet and healthy new year.

When Is It Okay to Take the Car Keys Away?

Having “the conversation” with your senior parent

By Rabbi Richard F. Address

Eventually, in every caregiving workshop, comes the question of when it’s okay to take the car keys from an aging parent. To this I often remark that if you are ever bored and want to engage in a “fun” conversation, float that trial balloon. One can accept a walker or cane, a hearing aid, and/or bifocal or trifocal eyeglasses, but take the car away? Here is the bottom line: there is no right way, just right times. And you, as a caregiver, will have to try to finesse this as much as possible, unless circumstances dictate otherwise.

I started having this conversation with my mom several years ago. I was usually met with icy silence, as if I had brought news of earth’s imminent demise. Independence, or the fantasy of same, is an American “right,” and nothing in our culture says independence better than our car. Just ask any teenager! So, until last May, my mom ignored her gradual loss of directional sense, the rare TIAs (transient ischemic attacks), and a host of other issues. It seems that she got lost returning home—lost enough for her to panic.

One day we were discussing another list of “issues,” when she turned to me and handed over her car insurance bill. “Do I really need this now? After all, I live in an assisted living facility. Someone will always be around to drive me where I wish to go, and this way I can save all this money for something I do not use that much.”

There it was, the opening. The pretext was money saved; the subtext, her reaction to being lost, forgetting where she lived, and her ensuing panic. Long story short, Mom agreed with me when I suggested that her idea to save all that money was a good one. We let the insurance lapse and sold the car the next week.

That process took about two and a half years from first conversation until final resolution. Time and circumstances allowed this to occur, and, thank God, she was not in any accidents. Not all are so lucky.

Again, there is no correct way to resolve the driving issue. I have heard of adult children allowing the car to remain unrepaired after an accident or “forgetting” to pay license renewals. Others are proactive and just take the car away. This is a life-transition moment of major importance in our culture. Just think about how you would feel if you were unable to drive and were dependent on others for everything from going to the store or the movies to just out for fun.

So here is a hint. This is not a conversation to be taken lightly. It is one that, in most circumstances, must be planned with the knowledge that the entire process may take some time. Good luck.

Shalom.

The Long and Winding Road?

Increased longevity raises important public policy questions

By Rabbi Richard F. Address

We are often at a party or in a conversation when the age issue comes up, either jokingly or in some serious context, and someone opines that after all, age is just a number!

Well, as you know, there is some truth in that (except maybe early in the morning or in the middle of the night). Attitude, it has been said, is a major factor in how we see our own aging.

Another factor emerging in our so-called developed world is literally reshaping cultures before our eyes. We are just plain living longer. Not only in the United States, but also in many countries in the world, and this longevity reality is now beginning to impact entitlement programs, the perception of work, and the value of retirement. These economic, social, and personal realities present us with some amazing choices and challenges.

I was flying to vacation last month when I came across an article in Foreign Policy magazine that discussed this fact. It referenced a piece in the Lancet that reported more than half the babies born since 2000 in France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Canada, Japan, and the United States will live past 100. “By mid century”, said the article, “there will be nearly 6 million people over the age of 100 in the world, compared with just 340,000 today, according to the US National Institute of Aging.” (Foreign Policy, May/June 2010, p28). One can only feel sorry for Willard Scott!

We can immediately jump to questions of who is going to pay for this extended life span as well as who is to say that the added years will equal added mobility and cognition. Here is where the spiritual and religious questions arise. Just because we “can” do something doesn’t mean we should. Of course, all of us want to feel that we will be able to live longer, better, healthier lives. God willing, that will be so. But what of the people who do not, or cannot, or the people who simply outlive their financial resources?

This longevity challenge raises important public policy questions about work and leisure, retirement, and relationships. We already spend most of our lives without children. Why fix a date for retirement? Why not extend the entry age for Social Security? Medicare? What happens to younger workers when we keep on working, either out of desire or necessity (or both)? And, if we can take a page from so much of the contemporary political discussions, are our children prepared to pay increased taxes to fund entitlement programs that will allow us to enjoy these added years?

These are very real and pressing questions. Sadly, it does not seem as if many leaders have begun to consider the implications of these challenges. We ignore them at our peril. Perhaps it is time, during the coming program year, for our churches, synagogues, and mosques to create discussions around these issues, discussions framed from a perspective of faith and not politics.

Just a random thought as the summer season begins. Enjoy!

Truths from Tradition

“A joyful heart makes for good health; despondency dries up the bones”

By Rabbi Richard F. Address

One of the least examined books of the Bible is the Book of Proverbs. I decided to look at this book for a mini class I am teaching this month in suburban Philadelphia.

Proverbs is part of a small collection of books referred to as “Wisdom literature.” The book offers observations on life, not from a lofty stance, but rather from the point of view of most of us who have to get through the day making a series of choices for our families and ourselves. Often, wisdom (chochmah in Hebrew) is personified and speaks as a wise sage. There are collections of maxims on a variety of topics. Some deal with issues related to health and healing and provide us with some very sound and common sense advice. In fact, the book really contains a lot of just plain old common sense advice.

For example: A joyful heart makes for good health; despondency dries up the bones (17:22). We all have heard the adage that attitude is everything. Well, here it is from a text about 3,000 years old! Indeed, study after study in our times has concluded that how you choose to respond to the challenges of life really does impact how you live your life and how your health reacts. In other words, Proverbs suggests that seeing that glass as half full actually has health benefits and makes life better. This is echoed a chapter later, where the book says: A man’s spirit can sustain him through illness; but low spirits—who can bear them? (18:14).

Here is another example of the common sense contained in the book. Many of us, as we grew up, heard from our elders advice on when it is appropriate to speak and how to speak. Likewise, we echoed these sentiments as we ourselves parented our children. The reality that words have power and sometimes it is better to stay silent is a reality that we all can identify with. So, it is no wonder that Proverbs says: Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweet to the palate and a cure for the body (16:24).

Jewish tradition teaches that words, when wrongly used, can have the power to kill. The concept of lashon ha’ rah (evil speech or gossip) is a very strong part of our teachings. Indeed, it is included in the interpretation of the commandment against murder, as commentators knew that words, spoken in anger or with malice, can have the impact of “killing” another person. What we say can and does make a difference, so Proverbs reminds us that A healing tongue is a tree of life, but a devious one makes for a broken spirit (15:4).

Much of the text contains advice in the form of a parent talking to a child. It is often cast in the language of Wisdom speaking to the author and symbolizes a host of things (e.g., parent to child, God to humanity). However, if you examine many of the proverbs, you will probably smile and think and remember when you may have said something quite similar to your own children as they grew up, or to grandchildren now.

In the beginning of the book are several texts that remind the reader to listen to the instructions of parents, simply because they are your parents! In other words, life experience, honor, and respect count for a lot. In the end, that honor and respect is linked to long life and a peaceful soul. As the text says in one cogent verse from chapter three: My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your mind retain my commandments; for they will bestow upon you length of days, years of life and well being (3:1-3).

Take a look at this most interesting book. I think you will find some very meaningful insights.

Shalom.

A Suggestion for Your Celebration Consideration

Celebrating Wisdom

By Rabbi Richard F. Address, DMin

Let me get directly to the point. I would like to suggest a new ritual for you to consider.

It will need some adapting to your particular religious tradition (or lack thereof), but that is okay. I can’t do everything!

As we move to the end of May, the Jewish community will celebrate one of its major festivals, Shavuot. The agricultural origins of this ancient festival lie in the fact that it was the gathering of “first fruits.” Along the way, the historical aspect of the giving and receiving of the Torah was added to the festival’s profile.

I am not concerned with those interpretations here. The festival gets less attention (and knowledge) than the other major festivals in our year and pales when compared to the recently observed Passover. Most Jews today associate the holiday with the ceremony of Confirmation, at which teens affirm their allegiance to Jewish tradition and faith. This comes a few years after Bar/Bat Mitzvah, usually at around 16. It is a very important celebration.

Yet, it came to me that there is another way that this festival can be interpreted. The receiving of the Torah implies the gathering of wisdom. Why not create a ceremony in your synagogue, church, mosque, or spiritual gathering place that celebrates the acquisition of wisdom. I am talking about real wisdom. Not book knowledge, but the wisdom that each of us have after living four or five or six or more decades of life. I would bet that you, at 50, 60, or 70 look at things a lot differently than you did at 13, 16, or 36! Why not institutionalize a ceremony that celebrates the gift of life, recognizes that we have lived, and looks forward to many more years of life and wisdom?

Now, lest you think this is all based on fantasy (not that there is anything wrong with that), let me introduce you to the ceremony of Simchat Chochma, which is Hebrew for the celebration or rejoicing of wisdom. Such a ceremony exists and has been celebrated by people in synagogues around North America in recent years. It has been more private than public, and that is why I am suggesting that each religious tradition takes on this idea and shapes it to its own tradition.

The ceremony can involve the use of classic symbols like water, candles, flowers, and fruit. There is no standard ritual yet in operation. The ritual that I am referring to can be found in a book that discusses how congregations can proactively address the longevity revolution before us (To Honor and Respect, URJ Press, URJBooksAndMusic.com). Part of the liturgy used by the woman who celebrated this includes these very wonderful words as prayer: “As today I celebrate my life’s continual unfolding, I am awestruck by the wonder of my being. And so I pray that kindness and compassion may be on my lips, that strength and courage may be with me in my comings and goings, and that I may continue to learn from and to teach those dear to me.”

Let me suggest that the time is right for religious institutions to celebrate the wisdom our generation has gained from the living of our life and to recognize the value of one’s life experience.

I would love to know your reaction to this suggestion and if your religious community would be open to such a new idea.

Shalom.