When I came to Israel on aliyah at age 68, I wanted to find a job and feel productive. Thankfully, I was able to secure two teaching positions, but each school had to obtain permission for me to teach since I was over the official retirement age in Israel.
Because my academic expertise is in English Literature, I was deemed an essential worker because of my PhD in English. This made me “highly qualified” to teach Anglo student populations in schools that had a large number of students from English speaking countries. I did not expect to be a school principal in Israel as I was in America, and I was happy just to find meaningful work. Therefore, I understood the excitement of Sergio, the main character in The Mole Agent, a man between 80 and 90 years of age who responds to a newspaper ad looking to hire a man between 80 and 90 years old.
The Mole Agent takes place in Santiago, Chile, where Sergio is hired by a private investigator. The private investigator is working for a woman who wants someone to spy on her mother in a nursing home to make sure she is being treated properly. In order to do this, Sergio has to live in the facility for three months so that he can infiltrate the home and find out whether the client’s mother is being abused. In the process of his assignment, he gets to know many residents of the home, and comes to some surprising conclusions.
In truth, his infiltration into the nursing home reveals how lonely the residents feel, how they yearn for human connection, and how old age, almost by definition, leads to a feeling of inadequacy and low self-esteem. Sergio, in fact, is the consummate gentleman, who endears himself to many residents of the home because of his innate friendliness and compassion for those less fortunate. The main problem is not abuse by nursing home staff. Rather, it is the sense of abandonment that the elderly feel when they are placed in the nursing home and rarely have visitors.
Rosally Saltsman, a Jewish educator and writer, describes the environment she faces as she enters into her senior years: “Youth has always been highly prized in Western culture. The billboards and magazines still promote images of youth and sensuality as goal and ideal. Ironically, many older people, in order to work, are now taking the kinds of jobs they had when they first joined the work force three decades ago (for unfortunately the same pay) because not a high enough value is placed on the maturity, experience and the wisdom that comes with age. This idolizing of youth is in complete contrast to the way Judaism defines aging. The Ethics of the Fathers teaches us that a 40-year old attains understanding, a 50-year old can offer counsel, and a 60 year old attains seniority. In Judaism, age is valued, age is an advantage.”
Saltsman observes that Judaism commands us to revere the aged by standing up when they enter a room, by giving our seat to an elderly person on a bus, by treating them with respect. Ageing should be a source or pride and honor. She reminds us: “We are judged when we leave this world at who we are when we finish our journey, not who we were when we were our most attractive, most energetic, or displayed our most potential. Jews are people of the spirit and the mind – realms that are truly ageless. The body is just a vehicle to house them.”
Sergio tells us that at old age we still can lead meaningful lives. One way to do this is to emulate his concern for the lonely and forgotten and integrate them into our lives.