Aging Jewishly – What Our Traditions Tell Us about Growing Old
By Rabbi Barbara Aiello
The Kitchen table in Beth and Martin’s apartment was covered with papers, each in its own neat stack. There were utility bills, grocery receipts, doctors’ prescriptions and an occasional scratch-off lottery ticket, symbolic of the no-win situation that currently characterizes the couple’s finances.
Martin shook his head. “I don’t know what to do. Everything we buy now costs double or triple what it cost last year.” Beth rubbed Martin’s shoulders. “I know it doesn’t help much but lots of seniors are in the same boat. Our neighbors have given up eating out. Our friends cut down on driving to see their grandkids and one of the ladies at Temple just downsized to a studio apartment.”
Martin shook his head while Beth took a deep breath. “I know you don’t want to hear this,” she said, “but it’s time to call the kids.”
Unfortunately Martin and Beth are not alone. Although they’ve been frugal all of their lives with Martin maintaining their savings accounts while Beth studied specials and shopped with coupons, the current economic downturn was more than the family budget could bear. With inflation on the rise many seniors face situations similar to Martin and Beth’s.
According to CBS News’ on line “Money Watch,” (Oct.6, 2022) reporter Aimee Picchi found that “even before inflation spiked in 2022, more seniors were falling into poverty,” with the ranks of poor seniors topping nearly one million. Consumer prices are rising at a pace not seen in four decades with many seniors facing the same problems as Beth and Martin; retirement incomes and savings accounts are being swallowed up by run-away inflation – a situation that prompted Beth to propose the unthinkable.
She pressed forward. “Martin, let’s discuss it. We need to ask our children for financial help.” Reluctantly Martin agreed. “So what do we do? I mean, we can’t just pick up the phone!” Beth agreed. “Let’s think this through.”
Although Beth and Martin were not regulars at their local synagogue, they turned first to their Jewish traditions to determine if there was any rabbinic guidance regarding adult children’s responsibilities to aging parents. Martin wondered, “Is there any direction beyond the commandment to ‘Honor your father and your mother’? Martin found that the Torah states the commandment twice, a clue to the importance the Torah gives to parent/child relationships. In addition, our greatest sage, Maimonides noted that an adult child is responsible for the care of
elderly parents, unless a serious condition such as dementia requires that the parent received specialized assistance. If not, Maimonides’ contemporary, Rabbi Abraham ben David noted that “who but the children can provide an appropriate level of loving care?” – implying that in ancient times no one but their adult child was more qualified to care for elderly parents.”
“That was then,” Martin said. “This is now. We’ve always been strong for our kids. Helping them financially when they needed it. Asking our own kids for help now is humiliating.”
Beth was sensitive to Martin’s concerns but she knew their financial problems were not unique. In fact, when a good friend confided to Beth that she was “on the edge” financially, Beth shared her own anxieties and asked, “So what did you do?”
Beth’s friend, Monica found that it was easier to ask her children for help when she shared a sermon given by the pastor of her church. In the words of Pastor John K. Jenkins, spiritual leader of the First Baptist Church in Glenarden, Maryland, “Parents shouldn’t have to beg their adult children to take care of them. In fact adult children should set aside money each month specifically to be used to care for an elderly mom and dad.”
Thanks to Beth’s friend, Martin and Beth felt more comfortable making a plan to speak with their children. An internet search netted an article on the website, CreditCards.com where Martin and Beth found the information they needed to move forward.
Financial planners suggested that before a family discussion takes place, parents should organize their finances so that they can share specifics about their financial situation with their children – an essential Step One.
Step Two requires that the parents ask that the family meet together. All the children should be present so that there is no confusion about the specifics of their parents’ financial situation. Financial consultants advise that the family meeting be discreet and apart from Thanksgiving dinner or the Passover Seder. “The family meeting on family finances should remain separate from family celebrations.”
Step Three suggests that the parents consider holding the meeting in a neutral venue and invite a third party to moderate. Meeting in an attorney’s office or in the home of a trusted friend will offer a level of objectivity that may be necessary if there are family rivalries or contentions between siblings or parents.
Step Four requires that parents avoid “tit for tat” statements such as “We sacrificed for you, now it’s your turn.” Adult children who are made to feel guilty will become resentful and angry, closing the door on further discussion.
A healthy Step Five requires that parents set ego aside and share honestly about income and expenses. Financial planners agree that if parents need financial help from their children, the children need to understand the specifics of the situation – even if those specifics might include poor investments or frivolous purchases.
These are difficult times, especially for aging parents. A practical approach that includes love and compassion can make current financial challenges easier to bear.
For ten years Rabbi Barbara Aiello served the Aviva Campus for Senior Life as resident rabbi. Her most popular columns are now published in her new book, “Aging Jewishly,” available on Amazon books. Rabbi Barbara now lives and works in Italy where she is rabbi of Italy’s first Reconstructionist synagogue. Contact her at Rabbi@RabbiBarbara.com.