In the Jewish tradition, there is a mitzvah from the Torah to honor the elderly (Leviticus 19:32). Rashi, on this verse, writes that this mitzvah applies not only to wise elders but applies equally to the ignorant. The Rabbis also suggest that although many elderly may have forgotten much of their wisdom in their later years that this does not diminish their value:
Be mindful of the elderly person who has forgotten his teaching for reasons that are not his fault, as it is said that the broken tablets rested with the tablets in the ark (Brachot 8b).
Rambam states that we must honor the elderly, even if we do not consider them wise, as incontrovertible law:
We should stand before an old man of exceedingly advanced age, even if he is not a sage. Even a sage who is young is obligated to stand before a sage of exceedingly advanced age. Nevertheless, he need not rise to his full height, and need only show some token of respect (Laws of Torah Study 6:9).
This is the law found in the Shulchan Aruch as well (Yoreh Deah 244:1). The Torah suggests that certain levels, and types, of wisdom can be assumed for the elderly; Deuteronomy 32:7 reads, “Remember the days long gone by. Ponder the years of each generation. Ask your father and let him tell you; and your elder, who will explain it.” It is even more explicit in Job: “With age comes wisdom, and length of days brings understanding” (12:12). The rabbis believed that the elderly necessarily had wisdom that we could all learn from (Kiddushin 32b).
Elisha ben Avuya said: “One who studies Torah as a child, to what can he be likened? To ink written on fresh paper. And one who studies Torah as an old man, to what can he be likened? To ink written on smudged paper.” Rabbi Yose bar Yehudah of Kfar HaBavli says: “One who learns Torah from the young, to what can he be likened? To one who eats unripe grapes or drinks unfermented wine from his vat. But one who learns Torah from the old, to what can he be likened? To one who eats ripe grapes or drinks aged wine.” Rabi says: “Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it; there is a new vessel filled with old wine and an old vessel that does not even contain new wine” (Pirkei Avot 4:20).
We should consider deeply who we are attaining our wisdom from and how we are balancing out our perspectives. In addition to learning from the aged, the rabbis are clear that we must actively engage and support the elderly. In Bereshit Rabbah, Parshat Toldot it is written, “We learn that everyone who welcomes in an elderly person, it is as if he has welcomed in the Divine Presence.” Some explain that this is due to the wisdom and dignity of the elderly. Still, others explain that it is due to their challenges; “Rabbi Yochanan would stand before the elderly Arameans and say, ‘How many troubles and experiences have passed over them!’” (Kiddushin 33a). Wise or not, this is a vulnerable population that is to be taken care of.
Sadly, in America, today the elderly are often neglected. Shocking statistics reveal some of the economic challenges that seniors face;
…. From 2011 to 2012, the rate of extreme poverty rose by a statistically significant amount among those 65 and older, meaning that a growing number of them were living at or below 50 percent of the poverty line. In 2012, this was $11,011 a year for an older person living alone.
The elderly are unfortunate victims of a perception based on statistics instead of reality. Obviously, in many cities the demands of monthly rent alone exceeds that of an annual income, even for those above the poverty line. Thus, using statistics, it appeared that in 2006 (before the severe recession) fewer than 1 in 10 of the elderly lived in poverty. However, more than 22 percent lived below the 150 percent poverty level (then about $13,000/year). Then, even more pertinent to seniors, there are healthcare costs that are not factored in to poverty statistics. Taking these costs into consideration, even in a comparatively generous area, New York City, this more realistic poverty rate for the elderly would be 32 percent as of 2006. We must not be slaves to statistics, but should really see and understand the conditions that many of our nation’s seniors are forced to cope with in their later years.
Many of those struggling have suffered from long-term unemployment, debts, insufficient savings, and inadequate social security support and retirement savings. This all is exacerbated by the consistent increased costs of living.
Furthermore, there are serious health risks that seniors face as they age, such as the risk for falls and resultant fracture. Injuries and resultant fracture are responsible for thousands of serious injuries, disability, and even deaths a year. The combination of decreased bone mineral density and lessening vision leads to an increasing tendency to falls that may result in bone fracture, with hip fractures especially dreaded, as they lead to disability and the necessity for institutional care. Increased urgency for urination (often caused by diuretics and prescription medications) can also lead to falls, as the elderly rush to get to a bathroom before they have an accident. Other health risks such as presbyopia (the inability to see near objects) and other visual problems such as macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy make seeing and avoiding obstacles increasingly difficult. The inability to reach one’s feet (the feet are especially vulnerable to infection, and those with diabetes may be at risk of losing their feet if an infection is unattended) is also a serious problem, and something as simple as trimming one’s toenails becomes virtually impossible, or fraught with the risk of cuts and infections.
Unfortunately, the growing elderly population faces yet another threat: abuse and neglect. As people live longer, the quality of life does not necessarily increase with the years. Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, Parkinson’s, and other disabling conditions often prevent the elderly from taking care of themselves, and caregivers (either family members or eldercare workers overworked in cost-conscious facilities) are often put under tremendous strain, as their relatives/patients often deal with the symptoms of their respective conditions. At times, the result of the caregivers frustration, attitude/demeanor, and workload leads to either abuse or neglect, ranging from physical beatings, sexual assault, neglect (such as allowing patients to develop bedsores by not turning them over periodically, not giving them medication in a timely fashion, or failing to clean their urine and excrement). While these instances are hard to quantify, government sources estimate that hundreds of thousands of the elderly suffer from abuse or neglect annually. It is no wonder that many elderly people diligently try to avoid going to an “old age” home.
We can do our part to help the elderly by ensuring that home therapists visit to ensure that risks for falls is minimized (e.g., by removing throw rugs and excessive furniture), that doctors regularly visit and check on seniors, and, that if a senior is bedridden, that they are regularly bathed and turned so that they do not develop bedsores. In addition, we should all take care of available services. For example, the Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) provides qualifying Medicare and Medicaid patients guaranteed services. PACE supplies primary, hospital, home, and adult day care, with nursing, meals, transportation, and social services, provided by an interdisciplinary team of medical providers, therapists, and home and personal care attendants.
We can further help by ensuring that Social Security is bolstered and not weakened as an “entitlement.” After all, workers pay all their lives into the fund, so they are merely receiving what they have rightfully earned. As of June 2013, the Social Security Administration paid 37 million retired workers an average monthly benefit of $1,269. This amount is clearly inadequate to pay for rent, food, health care, and other expenses. Since more than half of all American workers have no private pension plan, more than a third have no retirement savings, and by 2033 there will be more than 77 million elderly people, our need to provide resources for the elderly will become even more critical.
There are countless ways to honor seniors and they should not merely be symbolic. We can all find more ways to help in a hands-on way and to advocate for their needs in society. The great Rebbe Nachman of Breslov wrote that one can, “Gauge a country’s prosperity by its treatment of its elders;” let us ensure our society’s greatness by fulfilling our mitzvah to honor our elders.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder &President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”