Within a few days we will be celebrating the holiday of Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. The story is one we all know, of courage that overcame overwhelming odds, of a miracle that reaffirmed faith and dedication. We often talk about the symbolism of the candles, of lighting the flames that we hope will light our world.
This year, in the context of our world of elder services, I’d like to think about, and reflect on what each of these candles could symbolize.
The first candle is for health and the effort we must all make to be well ourselves and help others to do the same. It is easy for older adults to neglect their nutrition as well as sit more and move less. For our elders and ourselves, neglecting self-care can lead to premature decline. When we light this candle we think about our own health and the health of those we love and we pledge to help ourselves and others to practice the positive behaviors that can keep us strong and functional longer.
We light our second candle for quality of life and our commitment to ensuring that everyone can experience quality of life, regardless of their disease or disability. Too often elders whose aging process has changed them are thought to be without the ability to participate, to engage, to enjoy. But we know full well that is untrue. We must understand each person as an individual and must look for and work with their specific skills and preferences.
The third candle is for the rights of each individual to be seen and treated as an individual. Regardless of age or stage, our elders have rights and choices. When our older adults are thought to be some sort of homogeneous group, we fail them and we fail ourselves. During the COVID pandemic, there were many action taken to “protect” older adults. Protection, however, was a euphemism for stripping away their rights as human beings. This candle’s light reminds us that we must stand up for the rights of elders as we do for every person.
Our fourth candle burns to remind us that our elders deserve to have the “dignity of risk.” We must remember, and honor, the ability that all of us have to make choices for ourselves. Chronological age does not mean that elders give up control of their lives. It does not mean that they have, somehow, reversed roles with their children and that the elders have become children, and the children have become the parents. Our older adults deserve, and must be afforded, the opportunity to live their lives and make choices that resonate for them.
The fifth candle reminds us that our elders still have much to offer. Our large population of older adults is a resource that is being squandered. So many older adults could play important roles in our society, from tutoring children to providing professional advice. During the pandemic, as parents struggled to work remotely and manage remote school for their children, our elders could have bridged the gap both with assistance with school and support for both parents and children. Treating our elders as having no value is not just wrong, it is wasteful and the light of this candle is the light of opportunities.
With the sixth candle we think about the respect to which we are all entitled, the respect each individual deserves. Respect is reflected in the way we interact with people. It is reflected in the language that we use. It is as simple and profound as remembering that someone with dementia is not “demented” but, rather, an individual leaving with a diagnosis of dementia. It is about calling elders by the name they wish to be called and understanding that their years have value and meaning.
As we kindle our seventh candle, let us reflect on the thought that “age is just a number.” There is no limit to what an older adult can do or achieve, with support if they need it. It is not only possible for elders to live their dreams, it is, for those who help make it happen, truly rewarding. As with any of us, elders deserve to have their potential recognized and to have the opportunity to continue to grow, learn and experience.
Candle number eight lights in us a renewed commitment to both call out and end ageism whenever we see it. Older adults are not objects, not children, not incapable. Older adults must be treated with dignity and not ridicule, from the language that we use to the approach that we take. When you take an older adult to the doctor and the doctor speaks to you and not the elder, that is ageism. When commercials mock those who have “fallen and can’t get up,” that’s ageism. When we talk about elders wearing diapers or bibs, that is ageist and demeaning. Ageism lurks around many corners and we must shine our light on it and refuse to tolerate it.
The Shamash or leader, the candle that lights all others, is a light for all those who have devoted their lives to the care of older adults. During the last few difficult years, these courageous and dedicated individuals worked unstintingly to care for our elders and to ensure that their lives were as full and rich as possible. Their compassion and caring are a light for all and this candle, which we light each night, is a symbol of their bright spirit.