Some of the statistics are really attention getting. The 2020 Pew study of our community indicates that almost half of the American Jewish community is over 50 years of age. A quick look at population studies of major Jewish communities will most likely also show the rise in Jewish elders. There really is a revolution in longevity taking place in front of us. Add to this the census people seem to be telling us that by 2035 people in the USA over 65 will outnumber people under 18. What is even more interesting, in a way, is the emerging attitudes of elders. It seems that, on the whole, we are living longer and living better. The June 2022 AARP Bulletin published an overview of a study that headlined “The New Truth About Aging: Older Americans Are Redefining Health, Wealth And The Goals of Long Life”
One of the key workshops we do as part of our Jewish Sacred Aging program is one on how Judaism looks at Health and Wellness. The study confirmed that this issue is high on the list of priorities. Indeed, the study showed that living with “conditions” is a new normal. The study showed that 2 out of 3 people “in their 50s and 8 out of 10 in their 80s are living with one or more serious or chronic health conditions.” Health, it seems, is not either I am sick or I am healthy, but the ability to live with issues and keep living as best as one can. Every one of us reading this knows someone like this.
Yes, money is an issue, yet the study seemed to show that many are better positioned that our own adult children. What was also meaningful was a section on the more spiritual aspects of the conversation. The study did show, as we know from our work, the gradual shift for many from material to spiritual aspects of life. Family, relationships, and the like become greater priorities; but family can also be defined as the broad range of friendship networks and not just blood relations.
A finding that makes for good dinner party conversation is the tension between optimism and fulfillment. People in their 60s and 80s were found to be less optimistic which was interpreted as “lack of optimism equates to fulfillment.” Do we reach this stage in life and see that meaning is in enjoying the moment with blessings and gratitude? Likewise, the survey reported that the fear of death “generally decreases with age. Of greater concern is controlling the circumstances. People want choice and self-control when dying…Most survey respondents endorse medical aid in dying.” These last issues point up the need for our congregations and community to be active in engaging the spiritual issues associated with our own aging. Who are we and where do we find meaning? What shall our legacy be? Where is God in all of this?
This survey was a joint venture between AARP and National Geographic and was conducted in 2020. The overall tone of this is uplifting in many ways. Yet, there are many areas that need attention and activism. We need to embrace more education and communication with the generations that are coming after us. If we remain in generational silos, we will be unable to pass on to the next generations the collective wisdom that so many have. Living longer is creating new challenges and opportunities for cross generational communication. It would be shame to allow what we have learned to remain unshared.
Rabbi Richard F Address
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.