It’s Not Funny – Joe Biden’s Cognitive Issues Are Cause for Concern

Several years ago when I served the elderly residents in a Florida retirement community, two adult children paid me a visit. They were distressed and wanted my advice on a situation involving their aging father and the woman who served as caregiver to their dad.

“We always loved Meg (not her real name) and all she did for Dad,” said the daughter. The son chimed in, “Meg was like family to us. We knew Dad loved her, too. But now he tells us he’s IN love with Meg. She’s 41 years his junior and they want to get married.”

The son and daughter went on to explain that when Meg first began working with the family, she was aware that their father had mild cognitive issues. A scant three years later the deterioration became more apparent.

That’s when Meg became responsible for more and more of their father’s affairs – from medical appointments to meetings with his financial advisor to choosing his attire for family celebrations. Meg’s guidance was so pervasive that his children hardly noticed how little their father could do for himself – which now included making a monumental life decision like getting married.

“Meg may truly love Dad,” said his daughter “But she knows he’s deteriorated and can no longer think clearly. She’s helped him keep up a false front – so that his family couldn’t see how bad things really were. Given what Meg knows about our dad’s condition, encouraging him to take on such an important commitment as marriage seems like elder abuse.”

In recent weeks as candidate Joe Biden has taken to the air waves, I can’t help but think of Meg and the elderly man she cared for. It seems that the issues surrounding Mr. Biden’s apparent cognitive difficulties have as much to do with those around him as they do with the candidate himself.

From the pundits on the right who disrespectfully refer to Mr. Biden as a “Gaff Machine,” to the journalists on the left who refuse to acknowledge a serious problem that regularly stares them in the face, both sides of the political spectrum fluctuate between making light of the problem and enabling the problem,  to denying that a problem even exists.

I’m not a doctor however I am a rabbi who served an elderly population for 10 years as a resident chaplain where I lived among hundreds of seniors. I observed firsthand many of the behaviors that mirror Mr. Biden’s current difficulties – behaviors that often indicate cognitive decline.

“It’s normal to have difficulty accepting that your aging loved one may be experiencing early signs of dementia,” says Claire Samuels writing on the website, A Place for Mom. While geriatric care manager Carol Larkin emphasizes that “It’s human to reject what we find unpleasant or frightening. But denying signs of aging and memory impairment can be dangerous to both caregivers and elderly loved ones.”

Despite Mr. Biden’s contradictions about whether or not he’s undergone cognitive testing, we only need attend to what he says and how he says it, to conclude that a comprehensive cognitive assessment might be in order. But I suspect that among Mr. Biden’s inner circle of family, friends and advisors, the situation is similar to that of our aforementioned Meg; like Meg, they already know.

Most of us have experienced a conversation with an aging parent, grandparent, spouse, relative or friend who confuses ideas, who can’t complete a sentence, or who struggles mightily for the correct word. Many of us understand that when cognitive difficulties present themselves on a regular basis they are not to be ignored. Or when they are acknowledged as legitimate concerns, they should not be dismissed by mocking the sufferer or joking around. In fact in an article on the subject by Daniel Gaitan   (Life Matters Media) the author reminds us that “Poking fun at people living with dementia isn’t cutting-edge comedy – it’s mean.”

This message got through to actor Will Ferrell who is reported to have cancelled his participation in a comedy film that would have featured President Ronald Reagan’s bout with Alzheimer’s disease.  It was outrage expressed by Mr. Reagan’s family that seemed to have changed Ferrell’s mind. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “In one scene, a low-level staffer tries to convince Reagan that he is only an actor playing the president in a movie. Reagan’s family called the project “cruel” and “heartless.”

Apparently journalist Alex Wagner didn’t get the memo. Writing in The Atlantic, (March 2020) Wagner titled his piece “Stay Alive, Joe Biden,” followed by the callous and humiliating subhead, “Democrats need little from the front-runner beyond his corporeal presence,”

Just like manipulative Meg who propped up a cognitively impaired man and then urged him to take on responsibilities that he obviously could no longer handle, it appears that those close to Mr. Biden are trying to do the same.

Yet in The Federalist we read that Biden “seems to have finally given up on sounding articulate.”  Unfortunately that statement misses the point. Certainly, if he were able, Mr. Biden would evaluate criticism, study his performance and sharpen his delivery. Clearly he cannot. Why? It could be that cognitive deterioration has set in; specifically, moments of confusion and forgetfulness, memory loss of personal details and current events –behaviors that are listed by geriatric professionals as part of the Seven Stages of Dementia. (Aegis Living, April 2019)

The cognitive impairment that seems so obvious in Mr. Biden’s verbal exchanges isn’t anything new.  In fact the late Rabbi Sholom Klass describes a similar situation in his book, “Tales from the Midrarsh and Talmud.”

In the account a wise and thoughtful nobleman, Dama ben Nesina is invited by the elders of his city to attend an important meeting. When he arrived they immediately seated him at the head of the table and the discussion began. As the meeting progressed Dama was unaware that his mother, who suffered from dementia,  had followed him. In a disproportionate  but not uncharacteristic burst of anger, she forced her way into the chambers and in front of Dama’s startled colleagues she rushed toward her son, shouting, screaming and slapping him.

When she kicked Dama, one of her slippers flew off her foot and landed across the room. Quietly Dama retrieved the slipper, and offering it to his mother, he took her arm and quietly said, “Mother, allow me to take you home.”

Those who know and love Joe Biden surely understand that he is suffering. I cannot imagine that his family and closest advisors don’t already know that something needs to be done. Discarding politics and prioritizing morality, could it be that the time has come for someone who is courageous and compassionate to do as Dama did and place a loving hand on Joe’s shoulder and say “Allow me to take you home.”

About the Author
Rabbi Barbara Aiello is the first woman and first non-orthodox rabbi in Italy. She opened the first active synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times and is the founder of the B'nei Anousim movement in Calabria and Sicily that helps Italians discover and embrace their Jewish roots
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